Water Quantity, Quality & Rights

Water is an essential and limited resource throughout the American West. As of August 2013, 42.38% of Montana was experiencing abnormally dry conditions and 23.83% of the state was experiencing moderate drought conditions. Montana’s finite water resources are being stressed by increasing water withdrawals and instream-flow requirements. The state’s water quantity issues have been compounded by the increased demand associated with the oil and gas industry’s unconventional drilling methods. As competition for water rights between agriculture and oil and gas exploration and production intensifies it is vital that Montanans know their water rights.

The Water Rights Bureau administers the Montana Water Use Act under Title 85: Chapter 2, Montana Codes Annotated. Bureau responsibilities include issuing and processing provisional water use permits, interim permits, temporary permits, water reservations, notice of completion of ground water developments, petitions for basin closure, petitions for controlled ground water area and authorizations to change water rights, some of which are associated with salvaged water rights and the leasing of water rights for temporary changes and instream flow. The bureau also is responsible for formulating policy to address water use violations and provides water rights direction and support to the division’s eight regional offices. https://dnrc.mt.gov/wrd/water_rts/default.asp

Interim committee studies state’s waters

The Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee (WPIC) has agreed to comprehensively examine water availability and supply in Montana over the next 15 months.

The committee will also exercise its newly expanded powers (created by Senate Bill 82) including official oversight over executive branch programs where the primary concern is the quantity and quality of water.

Northern Plains will be working with the committee as it studies exempt groundwater wells, water marketing, future water quality standards, use of gray water, efficiency of irrigation, and water availability for growing communities.

The WPIC study will provide Northern Plains the opportunity to advance the achievements accomplished last year in the Montana State Water Plan.

Montana Water Facts

1. The US Geological Survey (USGS) notes that available surface water supplies have not increased in 20 years, and groundwater tables and supplies are dropping at an alarming rate. As water supplies diminish, the majority of water used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) cannot be recycled and cannot return to the hydrological cycle.

Drop in U.S. underground water levels has accelerated: Read more >

2. In 2011 the EPA estimated is requires two to four million gallons to frack a horizontal well drilled into shale formations, and 35,000 wells are fracked annually in the United States.

Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources: Read more >

3. Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s (DNRC) website does not report the total amount of water actually used for fracking. Instead, the amount water used to frack a well is reported to the industry operated website, www.fracfocus.org, which reiterates well-by-well reports without any evidence of independent verification or analysis. The industry, therefore, is expected to provide accurate information to the public without any oversight or consequences.

Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws:

  • In 2012 FracFocus reported that 30 billion gallons of water were used to frack wells, while the EPA reported the use of 87 billion gallons in the same year.
  • These statistics strongly suggest that Montana may not be getting accurate and useful data from FracFocus.

4. In 2013 Montana passed legislation that allows holders of water rights to lease those rights temporarily for other uses, including the capacity for use as a source for fracking water. This legislation has opened the door for fracking to play a larger role in the use of the state’s water resources.

  • The oil and gas industry’s ability to lease water rights from private land owners and cities has caused the price of water to dramatically increase in the west. In Colorado, for example, farmer Kent Peppler would pay 9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. However, energy companies are now paying some cities $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot.

Colorado just one area where fracking fuels water fight: Read more >

5. Multiple agencies in Montana are responsible for different aspects of water law, but no single agency is addressing the cumulative water use by the oil and gas industry in Montana and its implications for state policy.

Read more >



220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
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