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MT Water Rights Holders: Loophole is Draining Supplies

December 7, 2009

MISSOULA, Mont. - A group of Montana ranchers say their water rights are being messed with, and they've asked the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to blow the whistle. Polly Rex is a rancher with senior water rights on the Stillwater River who has signed onto the DNRC petition. While water rights law and hydrology can be complicated, she explains, what's happened is that subdivision developers have taken advantage of a loophole that allows small, individual wells to be drilled without a permit or a review on how it would impact senior water rights. And when hundreds of small wells in a subdivision are then drilled, she says, the cumulative impact drains supplies.

"It puts me in a position where I'm pointing fingers at people who are developing and I don't want to have to do that. I'd like the DNRC to oversee this and figure this out before the lot is ever sold."

Rex says water rights laws are being ignored, and says that those regulations are in place to protect what is a limited resource.

"This can't continue; I mean, I am sure of that. We're going to get into a situation where we're going to be mining water. That doesn't work over the long term. You deplete your aquifer and then what?"

The petition asks that the effect of all the wells be reviewed and that developers be required to drill a common well for most projects. The DNRC has previously rejected similar requests, saying the agency doesn't have time or resources to take up the issue, and developers have warned that applying for permits or drilling common wells would slow projects.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - MT