Brianna Randall - September 02, 2010
Clark Fork Coalition
Streams at Risk
Exempt Wells: Putting Our Streams at Risk
Brianna Randall for the Clark Fork Coalition
Close your eyes. Imagine sitting near your favorite stream, maybe one near the Bitterroot or Clark Fork River. You watch the water flow by, tumbling over rocks and into pools. Now picture the homes just beyond where you’re sitting. Each house probably has a well punched into the ground. These wells are essentially straws, designed to suck water out of the ground. One well--or even a handful--doesn’t make much of a difference. But when hundreds or thousands of homes are using wells—like the Bitterroot Valley—it adds up to a chunk of water coming out of the ground. And that groundwater is the very same water that feeds your favorite stream, especially during dry summer months. The end result? As more and more wells go in, there’s less and less water available for your stream.
But how big a problem is this really? Considered one at a time, most wells in Montana take only a small amount of groundwater. And these underground rivers are an integral piece of our water resources in Montana. We need it to water our homes, crops, and industries. Groundwater accounts for 39% of the public water supply for city-dwellers in Montana, and over 94% of the water supply for rural homes. But we also need to carefully manage and keep track of our groundwater to ensure these aquifers last for our children’s children, and to make sure we don’t tip the balance of water too far away from our creeks and rivers.
Keeping track of the water is something our state agencies help us do, specifically the Dept of Natural Resources and Conservation. Unfortunately, the DNRC has maintained a loophole in its water use rules for the past two decades. This so-called “exempt well rule” sets the stage for exploiting groundwater at the expense of streams and other water users.
Like most Western states, small domestic wells in Montana don’t have to go through the permitting requirements like larger water users, such as irrigators, cities, or industries. This makes sense, because in Big Sky country hooking up to public water or sewer simply isn’t practical or affordable for many folks. In fact, one-third of Montanans drink from a non-public water source, which is usually a ground water well.
More and more, though, the exempt well rule is used contrary to the intent of our water law, which clearly states that the “exemption” is for one well at a time. Developers tend to use the poorly-worded rule to skirt the traditional permitting process and drill multiple unregulated wells for a subdivision without obtaining a permit—and without any oversight to make sure the water is physically and legally available for all these domestic wells.
How often do developers use this loophole to dodge permits? Here are some numbers to give perspective: there are 109,000 exempt wells on record. Almost one third of those were drilled in the past 8 years alone! The Clark Fork basin has 58,000 wells, half of them located only just one mile from a stream. It’s easy to explain the spike in exempt wells, when you see that on average, three of every four new homes built in the last decade in Montana used individual wells and septic systems. Even more disturbing is the fact that 50% of those lots are on less than two acres, meaning that drinking water and wastewater are often too close for comfort.
The Clark Fork Coalition doesn’t think exempt wells are appropriate for larger subdivisions, especially when dozens of wells are side-by-side with dozens of septic systems. This unrestricted use of water can negatively impact permitted senior water right holders like the Coalition, which irrigates crops on our Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley. Plus, there’s no telling what all these unmonitored and unregulated “straws” are doing to our groundwater, streams, or rivers.
Last November, the Coalition teamed up with water users from the Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Clark Fork basins to ask the DNRC to set aside the problematic exempt well rule and engage the public in drafting a new rule that better protects our water resources and water rights.
Unfortunately, the agency opted to keep the rule in place. In a decision released August 17th, the DNRC acknowledged the loophole is not consistent with the current demands for Montana’s valuable water. But the agency backed away from fixing the problem. Maintaining the status quo leaves ranchers and rivers at risk.
The DNRC said it would begin the process of adopting a new rule within eight months. The Coalition is worried this rulemaking process could drag out for years. We hope the agency will move quickly, rather than leaving streams and irrigators high and dry while the current exempt well rule encourages a free giveaway of our precious groundwater.
To learn more about the exempt well loophole and how it affects ranchers and rivers, visit www.clarkfork.org/ranch. If you want to learn more about streams and groundwater in general, you can also register at clarkfork.org for an upcoming continuing education workshop called “Living Near Streams,” held in Missoula on September 24th. Thanks for listening this evening. This is Brianna Randall on behalf of the Clark Fork Coalition, and the river.