Senate holds hearing on exempt well bill

Senate holds hearing on exempt well bill

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright Chronicle Staff Writer

State senators heard a proposal to loosen regulations on exempt wells Wednesday night, a measure that garnered support from agriculture groups and developers but opposition from environmentalists.

Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, presented House Bill 339 to the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The bill, which would create spacing requirements for how far apart wells should be in open and closed basins, cleared the state House earlier this month on a 62-38 vote.

Exempt wells have been a recurring issue in recent legislative sessions and in Montana’s courts. The term refers to water wells that can be drilled without a state permit. The wells can’t produce more than 35-gallons per minute or 10 acre-feet of water per year. Some have argued that developers have used the exempt well law to circumvent Montana’s water laws in building subdivisions.

Supporters of House Bill 339 said it was a compromise measure, crafted over the last two years with input from agricultural producers and builders. They said one of the biggest issues they heard from people around the state was the density of wells — how close together those wells are.

Under House Bill 339, wells in closed basins — where no more water rights can be issued — would have to be at least 660 feet apart. Wells in open basins, where more water rights can be issued, would have to be at least 330 feet apart. Those space limits are smaller than the limits currently being enforced, but supporters of the bill said they thought it would work.

“We think the spacing requirements are appropriate,” said Krista Lee Evans, representing the Senior Water Rights Coalition.

Supporters of the bill included real estate agents, builders, agriculture groups and the Montana Association of Counties.

Opponents of the bill included environmental groups, the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. They said the bill caters to developers, and could allow large subdivisions to drill a large number of exempt wells without assessing potential impacts to senior water users.

“A large subdivision can use the exemption and obtain their water rights without the permit review process that allows senior water right users to object,” said Brian Bramblett, an attorney for the DNRC.

The committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday night.