Montana flag Capitol
A Montana flag flies in front of the Capitol building, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

A legislative committee voted Wednesday night to table House Bill 642, which sought to expand an existing loophole exempting some wells from a Department of Natural Resources permitting process.

With little in the way of discussion, the House Natural Resources Committee amended and then tabled HB 642. As originally proposed, HB 642 would have granted some well owners access to additional groundwater and expanded the permitting loophole to allow subdivisions larger than 20 acres additional groundwater without going through a permitting process to ensure there are no adverse impacts to neighboring water rights holders. Exempt wells are frequently used to secure water for new construction in areas where all available surface water has already been spoken for.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, requested an amendment to establish a stakeholder group overseen by the DNRC to hash out issues related to exempt wells and the policies governing their use. The amendment also sought to establish in Montana law that the well-permitting exemption applies to a subdivision involving a family transfer of land.


Legislature wades into exempt-well debate

Exempt wells are the source of one of the biggest water fights before state lawmakers, who are making a concerted effort to increase housing supply in one of the nation’s fastest-growing states without instigating a knock-down, drag-out fight with agricultural producers.

Democrats unanimously opposed the amendment, along with Rep. Russ Miner, R-Great Falls.

Immediately after amending the measure, the committee took a roll call vote on a motion to advance HB 642 to the floor, which failed on a 5-10 vote. It is now tabled.

Bill sponsor Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, was not available for a comment by press time Thursday evening.

HB 642 opponent and Clark Fork Coalition Legal Director Andrew Gorder said he’s pleased the committee listened to stakeholders, who turned out in force to oppose the bill during its Feb. 22 hearing.

“I had a good feeling after the first committee hearing, but we certainly weren’t resting easy,” Gorder said. “Anything can happen at the Legislature and there’s a lot of horse trading that happens behind the scenes.”

“To me, the outcome here is an indication that although the development industry holds a lot of clout in the statehouse, there are certain issues where big money can’t necessarily buy you what you want. Protecting our water resources is one of those issues,” Gorder said.

At this point in the session, It’s unlikely that HB 642 will be revived — in its current form, anyway — unless at least 55 representatives opt to “blast” it onto the floor for a vote.

The Montana Realtors Association, one of the groups that had backed the bill, could not be reached for comment.

HB 642 proponents had said it would put more certainty into Montana code and ultimately streamline construction processes, thereby making housing prices more affordable for Montanans.

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Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...