HELENA – In the latest turn in a long-running battle over water for residential subdivisions, Montana well-drillers and their developer allies lined up Thursday to oppose a proposed state rule to tighten regulation of certain wells and water use.

Drilling-company owners said the rule change, which could require some subdivisions to show whether their water wells are affecting nearby water-rights holders, is unnecessary and will hurt development across the state.

“There are those, I feel, who want to limit the growth of Montana dramatically by limiting the use of water,” said Jon Norcross of Campwell Drilling in Missoula. “We think this is going to slow down our economy unnecessarily. It feels like a very arbitrary rule change.”

Yet supporters of the rule change, which included environmental groups, agricultural groups and water-rights holders, said it’s needed to stop developers from exploiting an exemption allowing them to drill multiple water wells without getting a permit or measuring their impact on other water-users.

“We’d like to … stop the proliferation of new wells at the expense of existing water rights,” said Barbara Hall, legal director for the Clark Fork Coalition, a Missoula-based conservation group. “(Current rules) allow multiple wells to be used solely to avoid water rights and take water that’s for existing holders.”

Both sides spoke at a Department of Natural Resources and Conservation hearing in Helena on the rule change proposed by the agency.

DNRC Director John Tubbs said the agency will examine the comments and decide whether to further amend the rule – but acknowledged that a vote last week by a legislative panel complicates the issue.

The Environmental Quality Council, a committee of the Legislature, voted 14-2 last week to formally object to the rule, essentially delaying any rule change for six months.

Tubbs said the Bullock administration hopes to work with the Legislature to craft an acceptable change in the rule.

However, Tubbs also noted that another “wild card” in the issue is a pending court case brought by the Clark Fork Coalition and several water-rights holders.

The coalition challenged the existing water-well exemption as harmful to water-rights holders. This May, DNRC and the coalition agreed to put the lawsuit on hold if DNRC adopted a new, more restrictive rule.

Under the current exemption, any water well that appropriates less than 35 gallons per minute and 10 acre feet a year does not have to get a state permit or determine how it might affect nearby water-rights holders.

Critics of the exemption say developers have been using it to create subdivisions and drill scores of water wells for individual homes, thus avoiding any permits while creating significant water impacts.

DNRC’s proposed rule limits the number of wells that could be drilled in a subdivision, according to its size, and still be exempt from permitting.

Krista Lee Evans, representing a coalition of agricultural and other senior water-rights holders, said the proposal does a good job of balancing the rights of developers and water-rights holders.

Yet representatives of home-builders, Realtors, well-drillers and some landowners said Thursday the proposed new rule is vague and inconsistent and tries to solve a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist.

“I’m in the field every day; I see what goes on,” said Dave Potts of Potts Drilling in Bozeman. “We do not see any impact to our aquifers in any way, shape or form, with all of the water use that is going on.”

The 2013 Legislature also passed a bill to put the current exemption into law, but it was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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