In October 2014, a Montana District Court judge invalidated an administrative rule regarding a legal loophole known as the “exempt well rule.” This rule has long been in need of invalidation. You can read the court order below, but to summarize, the exempt well rule has been exploited for many years by land developers, and has conflicted with the Montana Water Use Law that requires permits for appropriation of water. The administrative exempt well rule allows land developers to drill as many individual wells as their developments require without having to go through the permit process, making these numerous wells exempt from a necessary permitting process.
The Legislature makes the laws and the state agencies make the administrative rules to implement those laws. In the case of exempt wells, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation adopted a rule exempting wells from the permitting process and from public notice. The court ruled that the DNRC rule conflicted with the state law.
Consequently, thousands of residential wells have been drilled in Montana with no oversight, no protection for senior water rights holders and no way to determine how those wells are affecting surface water flows and groundwater availability.
“Exempt wells are being used for large, relatively dense subdivision development in closed basins,” according to the court order posted here. “Exempt wells are not reviewed by DNRC and are not subject to public notice,” the court stated.
As of 2008, there were more than 100,000 exempt wells in Montana. By 2020, the DNRC estimates that 32,000 to 78,000 additional exempt wells would be drilled under the exempt well rule. Of concern are the cumulative impacts of all these non-permitted wells to groundwater levels and surface water flows.
When the court invalidated the exempt well rule, it told the DNRC to go back to its original rule that required permits for new wells. But the court also left the door open for further rule making to clarify a confusing conflict between law and administrative rule.
It’s telling that, although the DNRC lost the legal issue before the court, it did not appeal the ruling. Instead, several interveners, including the Montana Well Drillers Association, Montana Association of Realtors and the Montana Building Association, did file an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
This appeal grabbed the attention of a number of non-profit advocacy organizations around the state, including Bitterrooters for Planning, Bitterroot River Protective Association, Stillwater Protective Association, Montana Trout Unlimited, Citizens for a Better Flathead, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, Montana Audubon, the Montana Smart Growth Coalition, and the original petitioner in the case, the Clark Fork Coalition. All working towards the same goal of supporting the District Court’s order invalidating the exempt well rule, these groups filed amicus curiae, or friend of the court, briefs petitioning the Montana Supreme Court to uphold the lower court decision.
The amicus briefs were filed in January 2016. A hearing date before the Supreme Court has not been set.
Read the entire document below