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Mud is a nuisance, but dust is a real problem. The truth in this old adage shows the importance of water in the utilization, development, and enjoyment of Montana’s resources.

This week bears the little-known designation of “National Ground Water Awareness Week.” Recent articles have focused on exempt wells, which are currently being discussed by the state legislative Water Policy Interim Committee. National Ground Water Awareness Week affords the opportunity to share an “on the ground” perspective of this issue.

There are more than 109,000 exempt wells in Montana on file with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. An exempt well is one that does not require permitting because it is pumped at 35 gallons per minute or less and is used for domestic, agricultural or livestock purposes.

Approximately 32 percent of Montanans are not served by a public water system. Most of these families rely on groundwater for their household needs. With Montana’s sparse population and vast area, groundwater is often the only option available to supply water. Exempt wells also meet the water needs of agriculture and other rural businesses across the state. Only three states rely on a higher percentage of non-public water supplies.

There is much discussion about the effect exempt wells have on groundwater levels. Licensed well-drillers across the state share that groundwater levels vary because of Mother Nature and drillers see no measurable change in groundwater levels due to the addition of exempt wells. In fact, some areas are reporting increased levels of groundwater where homes have been built and exempt wells installed. Data from the Bureau of Mines’ monitor wells confirms these observations for much of the state.

How can this be? Household use can return up to 95 percent of the water back to the ground – leaving slight net consumption. Most of what we pump is returned to the aquifer, via a properly installed septic system.

The Montana Legislature consistently recognizes that we need affordable access to water in order to grow our state and our economy. For this reason, they have kept the process of obtaining an exempt well reasonable, accessible and affordable to all Montanans.

The Legislature also recognizes the need to keep our groundwater free from contamination. The Board of Water Well Drillers in the Department of Natural Resources is responsible for licensing professional well drillers and establishing safety standards. The board also updates those standards as technology improves. All domestic wells are cased from top to bottom and the top 18 feet are sealed with either cement or bentonite, helping ensure non-point source contamination does not occur at the well head. A well, installed and maintained properly, does not create an adverse affect on the aquifer’s water quality.

Homeowners bear the responsibility of proper well maintenance. Well caps offer the first line of defense against non-point source contamination. You should not landscape around your well head. If you do landscape, make sure that there is not a low area around your well head where rain water can accumulate. Check your well cap annually. (National Ground Water Awareness week is a great time to do that!) Make sure that there are no cracks in the cap and that it is tightly sealed.

Finally, use common sense with hazardous materials such as paint thinner, fertilizer, cleaning products and pesticides. Follow prescribed guidelines for use, storage and disposal of all chemicals in order to keep them out of your, and your neighbor’s drinking water.

Montana’s exempt-well law, and current well drilling rules and procedures, provide access to affordable and safe water for Montana’s families and businesses, without jeopardizing our long standing and important system of allocating water rights.

Will Hayes of Hayes Drilling in Livingston is president of the Montana Water Well Drillers Association. Mike Lien, of Main Harbor Pumps & Well Drilling Inc., writes from Ronan.

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