Water Committee to discuss wildfire and well issues

Water Committee to discuss wildfire and well issues

News Type: State Source: Ravalli Republic
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Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, has asked representatives from the U.S. Forest Service to discuss the impact of last summer’s wildfires at the Montana’s Water Policy Interim Committee meeting next week.

The committee also will discuss possible modifications to the state policy regarding exempt groundwater wells during its meeting Monday and Tuesday.

Connell said a recent presentation in Hamilton on climate change and its impact on water flows in the Bitterroot Valley prompted him to invite a hydrologist to the committee meeting to discuss data that may have signaled last summer’s fiery season, and to discuss the aftermath.

“The fundamental key is the Forest Service manages the majority of the headwaters in the state of Montana, and their influence on what happens with water flows is of critical important to the rest of Montana for agriculture and recreation,” Connell said. “… I am anxious to hear discussions about the impacts of climate change beyond wildfire behavior, to include the necessary management to protect waterflows for downstream senior water right folks.

 “There is no doubt that water is the most critically valuable treasure of Montanans.”

While the climate change  issue is focused on surface water, the committee also will look at groundwater.

Montana state law allows an exemption from a water rights permit if a groundwater well is limited to 35 gallons a minute and 10 acre-feet each year. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has issued nearly 123,000 water right certificates for these wells, typically used for homes or farms.

In recent sessions, the Legislature has passed bills seeking to modify that limit, which Gov. Steve Bullock has vetoed. Then, in 2016 the Montana Supreme Court ruled that DNRC had been misapplying state law and stated that an entire new subdivision or development may have to share one exemption — instead of allowing one well per lot.

That situation came up recently at a Ravalli County Commission meeting, when commissioners gave preliminary plat approval to a 36-lot subdivision proposed for just southwest of Corvallis.

The Farm View Estates subdivision, with three commercial lots and 33 residential lots, will have individual wells for drinking and other domestic uses, but will pull water for lawns and other non-potable uses via an agreement with the Corvallis Canal and Water Co. The use of surface irrigation rights makes the subdivision fall within the constraints of being in a closed basin, according to a letter from DNRC.

Planning Department Director Terry Nelson had said DNRC estimates that with the surface water rights and irrigation, the 36 lots will use 9.99 acre feet, just under the 10-acre feet limit.

Jim Rokosch, president of Bitterrooters for Planning, had urged the commission to require a community well to ensure the subdivision wouldn’t affect existing water users and water rights.

“When you have an urban development of this density, a community well makes all the sense in the world in order to be able to not only monitor the quantity, but there are water quality issues as well,” Rokosch said.

While commissioners said they understood the concern, they approved the preliminary plat with the individual wells. The subdivision will hook into an existing sewer district’s wastewater system.

Trout Unlimited will make a presentation to the committee for a new policy proposal on Jan. 9, and the committee is soliciting other ideas during public comment on the issue. Other issues related to exempt wells will also be discussed.

The Water Policy Interim Committee meets in Room 172 of the Capitol. It will be live-streamed beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 8 at www.leg.mt.gov and will be broadcast on Television Montana (TVMT).

Other Water Policy Interim Committee members include Rep. Zach Brown (D-Bozeman), vice presiding officer, Sens. Jill Cohenour (D-East Helena), Jon Sesso (D-Butte), and Jeffrey Welborn (R-Dillon); and Reps. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls), John Fleming (D-St. Ignatius), and Carl Glimm (R-Kila).

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