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Exempt Wells Print E-mail

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Help protect clean water and water users: close a loophole that threatens our water supply.

The Clark Fork Coalition is concerned that a "loophole" in Montana's water permitting process is threatening our water rights, rivers, and ranches. In Montana, groundwater wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute and produce less than 10 acre feet of water a year are not required to get a permit and are not monitored.  Historically, these “exempt wells” have been used in rural areas to provide drinking water for homes, or irrigation water and stock water to farms and ranches. This makes sense.

Over the past two decades, though, residential subdivision developments and other large industrial projects have installed "exempt wells" to circumvent the state's water right permitting and mitigation requirements for using water in basins closed to new water rights -- like the Upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot.

This means that hundreds of exempt wells can come online in already over-tapped areas, without any reassurance that this new water use will not decrease the water available for senior water right holders. By taking advantage of a loophole in Montana's rules, developers can put in hundreds of wells without a permit -- as long as the wells are not piped together. Over the last two decades this loophole has allowed for the installation of tens of thousands of wells in the Clark Fork basin.   

In 2009, the Coalition joined several senior water right holders across the state to petition the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to set aside the problematic exempt well rule and draft a new rule that meets Montana's water needs while also protecting existing water users. The petition process culminated in 2010 with a court-approved stipulation in which DNRC agreed to amend the rule to protect existing water rights.  

Unfortunately, the rulemaking process has not resulted in a positive result for our rivers. Now, the Coalition is seeking to resolve this issue through legal action and negotiations with the DNRC, including plans to pursue court action. As the low water year of 2013 has clearly demonstrated, our streams and creeks need running water more than ever. Any proposed new large water use must prove that water is physically and legally available before they can be allowed to tap an already over-appropriated system. If the State of Montana continues to waiver on solving the problem of exempt wells, than existing water users (like ranchers, recreationists, cities and towns), will continue to see their once secure water rights trickle away.  

Thankfully, CFC members can help. Stay tuned to our website and social media sites, where we'll inform members how to help close the loophole during the upcoming 2015 legislative session.


The Clark Fork Coalition is one of many Montana landowners who are concerned that the "exempt well loophole" is threatening our water rights and rivers. We hold a number of senior water rights to irrigate 200 acres of crops on CFC's Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, as well as several in-stream flow rights on dewatered creeks throughout the basin.

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This graph illustrates the number of exempt wells per closed basin.

 
Exempt Wells In The News:

November 18, 2010: DNRC Reaches Water-Rights Agreement with Ranchers (Helena Independent Record)

November 16, 2010: DNRC, Ranchers Agree on New Water Appropriation Rule (Ravalli Republic) (Missoulian)

October 19, 2010: Western Perspective - Montana's Water Loophole (Guest Editorial by Sen. Dave Wanzenried for Headwaters News)

October 6, 2010: Water Struggles Not Drying Up for Senior Water Rights Holders (Prairie Star)

September 2, 2010: Coalition Commentary on MTPR Following the DNRC Decision to Uphold the Exempt Well Loophole

August 20, 2010: Montana Homebuilders Win Battle in Long-Running Well War (NY Times)

August 19, 2010: DNRC Ruling "Taps" Some MT Senior Water Right Holders (KPAX Missoula)

December 2, 2009: Montana Ranchers Seek to Curb Residential Wells

Learn More About Our Request to the DNRC:

READ the final settlement with DNRC

READ THE ORIGINAL PETITION FROM MONTANA IRRIGATORS to the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources.  This petition, filed by five water right holders around Montana, requested that the DNRC change a rule that allows multiple small individual wells to be drilled without first obtaining a permit and without any review of their impact on other water right holders or nearby streams and groundwater.

DNRC Response to Comments on Exempt Well Petition

DNRC Declaratory Ruling on Exempt Wells

READ THE 9/14/10 PRESS RELEASE that describes the decision made by the Coalition and other ranchers to ask the Montana District Court to review the DNRC decision.

DOWNLOAD THIS REPORT on the effects of exempt wells on existing water rights