Water wells that are exempt from permitting promise to dominate the work of the Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee, which meets June 21 in Helena.

House Bill No. 602 from the last legislature directs the committee to study wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute and yield less than 10 acre-feet of water a year. Thousands of these wells exist around the state for various uses including domestic, stock, and irrigation.

However, some argue that the cumulative effect of exempt withdrawals may be impairing senior water rights.

Montana and other western states manage water on a first come, first served basis. New uses are allowed so long as prior uses are not adversely affected. Larger wells and surface water appropriations must obtain a permit from the state and show that existing water users would not be harmed by the new use.

Previous interim committees studied exempt wells, but the law remains unchanged. The 2011 Legislature gave the water policy committee $15,000 to specifically study exempt wells. It is anticipated that there will be up to four meetings around the state to gather public comment and take field tours. The study will examine the effect of exempt wells on existing water rights, including the amount of water consumed, the relationship to land use planning, and the ability of senior water right holders to protect their rights against junior exempt well uses.

At the June meeting in Helena, the committee will decide what other issues it wants to explore in addition to exempt wells.

Panel members returning this interim include Sens. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, and Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade and Reps. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, and Walt McNutt, R-Sidney. New members are Sens. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, and Chas Vincent, R-Libby, and Reps. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, and Betsy Hands, D-Missoula.