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Watching our water

Quietly, behind the scenes in Helena, the legislative process churns along with little notice. Fifteen interim committees charged by the legislature with in-depth studies of schools, transportation, energy, water and many other topics meet regularly to provide information to your legislators.

Next week, the Water Policy Interim Committee, created by HB22, will hold it’s next meeting. The eight-member committee will meet Jan. 13-14 to study “topical water quality and quantity issues“. During the January meeting, the committee agenda will include discussions of the effects of exempt wells in Montana and also the effects of coal bed methane water quality and quantity. Comments on these topics will be taken from various stakeholders, state and federal agencies and the public.

The Button Valley Bugle has covered these topics several times. Exempt wells are small production groundwater wells that produce no more than 35 gallons per minute or 10 acre-feet per year. These wells are a good idea. In many parts of Montana, the only water available to a rancher or rural landowner is from groundwater sources. Exempt wells do not need to meet the same permitting criteria as larger withdrawals. Across the western states, the exemption was meant to provide access to water for thinly scattered populations without overburdening the regulatory process. Unfortunately, what worked well for small populations has become a problem as large development has come to the Western states. The Water Policy Committee has put together an excellent primer on the issues associated with exempt wells and associated septic systems, called “Drilling Down“. There are more than 109,000 exempt wells in Montana located in one of the five river basins that are closed to appropriation.  “The drinking water of nearly one of every three Montanans comes from a self-supplied source.” The committee found that,  “In some areas, particularly those in closed basins that are experiencing population growth, there are concerns about the effect of exempt wells on water quantity and the effect of individual septic systems on water quality.” House Bill 52, passed by the 2009 legislative session established a groundwater investigation program by the Bureau of Mines and Geology to provide data on which to base laws that will be needed to address these and other groundwater issues.

Also on the committee agenda next week will be an overview of the problems engendered by coal bed methane drilling. Millions of gallons of, generally poor quality water, is produced during the process of drilling for methane gas in coal seams. If the water is extremely salty, states generally require that it be treated somewhat before being re-used or dumped into a watercourse. If the water is not very salty, drillers are sometimes allowed to release it directly into surface drainages. Methane well operators produce over 650 million barrels of water from coal seams each year that mostly ends up in our waterways. Regulation has generally focused on the quality of the produced water rather than the quantity. EPA recently vowed stricter enforcement against companies that violate the Clean Water Act and has recently found problems with Wyoming’s rules on methane water mainly due to a primary focus on water quality and less on quantity.

Anyone interested in Montana’s water should pay attention to what the Water Policy Interim Committee is doing while the legislature is not in session. You can be sure that many water issues will crop up when the legislature next meets and you can be just as sure that the data and information on which they base any legislation will come from this committee among other sources. Meetings of the committee are broadcast live through their website. You can also find many excellent documents through the site including the Drilling Down exempt well primer, an overview of Coal Bed Methane Water issues and a super handbook on Water Rights in Montana. If you are interested in sending your comments to the committee on any of the water issues that the WPIC will be covering next week, you can email comments to jkolman@mt.gov.

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One Response

  1. […] Valley, of course, does a nice rundown on exempt wells and some of the issues that the Water Policy Committee will be looking […]

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