Montana Water Well Drillers Association

"To provide a safe, sustainable groundwater resource through education, innovation and responsible development."

2017 Legislative Session - Final Report
by Ronda Wiggers, lobbyist


The 2017 session was substantially quieter for the MWWDA than previous sessions.  Working with the coalition of our customers to come to an agreed upon solution to deal with exempt wells was certainly the reason.

Main Bills of Interest:

  • HB 339 Revise laws related to the exempt appropriations of water – this is our compromise bill that sets footage limits between exempt wells.  In a closed basin, all wells must be at least 660 feet from any other well on the tract of record; 330 feet in an open basin.  The tract of record is defined as it existed on October 18, 2014 (date of District Court ruling in the lawsuit).  This will insure that every tract of record is entitled to at least 1 exempt well, but if subdivided, or more wells are being placed on the property, the setbacks will apply.  The new law also includes the definition of combined appropriation that the MWWDA had fought for in court. This law, if signed, will become effective October 1, 2017.  This passed the House on a 62 – 38 vote and passed the Senate 32 – 18.  The Governor vetoed this bill on May 11, 2017.  The industry will continue to operate under the DNRC combined appropriation guidelines until rules are implemented.
  • HB 365 Revise underground utility laws – these are the changes that make our 811 law compliant with the Federal requirements.  MWWDA worked with other stakeholders to create the new law.  Although we were required to implement a fine schedule, it is much fairer than that of the Federal government.  If you always call before you dig, the fines will not ever apply.  We were also able to include the positive notification – if all parties have signed off as clear, you can begin work right away; eliminated the possibility of being charged for a remark if they need to come back out to the same job site twice; and an agriculture locate can now be done on an entire field, rather than site specific.  The bill is extensive in the number of changes and it is recommended that everyone attend an updated 811 class very soon.  This law will become effective July 1, 2017. It passed the House 100 – 0 and the Senate 49 – 1. (Tom Facey – Missoula) The Governor has signed this bill and it is effective immediately.
  • HB 308 Provide for apprenticeship tax credit with increased amount for veterans – this bill had a rough path this session. It began with a larger tax credit and then was amended to only apply to veterans and severely limited which internships would apply. After a number of changes the final version allows for a $750 per year tax credit for any qualifying apprentice and $1500 if that apprentice is also a veteran.  The bill will not take effect until tax year 2018. The BWWC will simply have to have our program certified thru the Department of Labor in order to qualify.  We have checked and this should be a routine certification.  This bill passed the House in its’ final version 77 -23 and passed the Senate 31 – 19.  The Governor has signed this bill into law.  Check with BWWC and your accountant to see how it applies to your business.
  • HB 368 Establish Setbacks for Lagoons and Wells – this bill was intended to resolve the situation where a well exists and a lagoon needs to be placed within 500 feet of the well.  Under current law, the lagoon must be at least 500 feet from the well, but a well can be within 100 feet of the lagoon once it is in place.  The original version of this bill allowed DNRC and DEQ to use hydrology to create reasonable distance requirements in each situation.  The House committee felt that this gave too much authority to the agencies and said that they were also ”limited to no more than a 500 foot requirement”.  The DNRC objected and the sponsor agreed.  The Senate took out this limitation.  The House passed the final version 62 – 38 (they had passed their version 94 -6) and the Senate passed the final version 50 – 0.  The Governor has signed this bill and it will be effective October 1, 2017.
  • SR 43 Confirm Governor’s appointments to the BWWC – we offered the Association’s support of Pat Byrne and Kevin Haggerty to be reappointed to the board as driller members.  The Senate confirmed on a vote of 50 – 0.  This does not require a vote from the House nor a Governor’s signature (it is his appointments).

Bills Also Watched:

  • HB 99 Limit Adverse Effects Analysis – this bill came via the Water Policy Interim Committee.  It simply says that if a senior water right holder enters into an agreement with a new applicant, the DNRC cannot argue adverse effect on behalf of that senior water right holder.  There were instances where neighbors had come to an agreement and then the DNRC still stepped in an intervened without any senior water right objections.  This bill will no longer allow that.  It passed the House in its’ final version (the senate made some minor amendments) 83 – 16;  the Senate passed the bill 48 – 1.  The Governor has signed this into law.
  • HB 429 Water permit exemption for fire department operations – Although water for fighting fires – including storage – was already exempt, this adds water used for training purposes and emergency fire related operations.  The bill passed the House 98 – 2 (Z. Brown – Bozeman, Stewart-Peregoy – Crow Agency) and the Senate 47 – 3 (Cohenour – Helena, Keenan – Big Fork, Malek – Missoula).  The Governor has signed this into law.
  • SB 28 Allow Water Court review of certain DNRC decisions – this is also at the request of the Water Policy Interim Committee.  If the DNRC denies a new permit or change application, the aggrieved party may choose to appeal to the Water Court rather than the District Court.  The intent is that the Water Court is often more informed about water law than a District Court judge.  It does NOT require that the appeal is filed in Water Court, and, if there are more than one aggrieved party, it must go to District Court.  This passed the Senate 35 – 11 and passed the House 79 – 19.  The Governor signed this into law and it will become effective October 1, 2017.
  • SB 248 Revise wells regarding exempt wells and family transfer parcels – the MWWDA actually liked the intent of this bill.  However, the coalition working on HB 339 felt that it could jeopardize the passage of that bill and only address a small portion of the issue. For that reason, we simply monitored this bill while some of the coalition felt that they needed to oppose.  The bill was amended to add that only one well can exist on a family transfer parcel.  This may cause some issues in a large acre transfer but should still work for individual building lots transferred within the family.  It also places some requirements for the family to actually hold the land for two years.  It does allow for hardship sale, but would place a $5000 fine if the property is sold outside the family in less than 2 years and the county can prove they were attempting to evade the subdivision law.  It is my understanding that some counties already implement this provision in their family transfer regulations.  From a county perspective, I believe it will be very hard to ever enforce.  It required a conference committee to get the House and Senate versions to agree.  The vote on the final version was:  House 59 – 41;  Senate 28 – 22.  The Governor vetoed this bill.

Other Items of interest:

  • There were a few bills brought forward to address the exempt well issue that simply had no support.  Some attempted to limit gallons per minute, acre feet or make other complicated changes.  As we had agreed to stick together on a broad solution, no one offered support for these.
  • In order to gather more federal match for our highway funds, fuel taxes are increasing.  Beginning in July, gas tax will increase 4.5 cents and diesel will increase by 1.5 cents.  In July of 2020, the gas tax will increase .5 cents more to 5 cents above current rate; diesel will go up another .02 cents so that it will be 1.7 cents above today’s rate.  The gas tax increases incrementally until it is increased by 6 cents in 2023 and the diesel tax is increased by a total of 2 cents in 2023.
  • The legislature also determined that the Department of Motor Vehicle should be allowed to implement a 3% surcharge on all fees they charge.  This will allow the department to fully self-fund, rather than rely on the general fund.  This will apply to driver’s license, GVW permits, title and registration, etc.
  • Your property taxes are likely to go up a bit.  Not because of your local county commissioners, but due to the state.  Last session the legislature implemented a 2 year reappraisal cycle that was intended to eliminate the huge swings in value that were happening with the 6 year cycle.  And, although the local governments are required to “float” their mill levies down in order to collect the same amount of money if values increase, the state is not required to do so.  Because of that, the increase in values will increase the amount of taxes you pay to the state (101 mills).  Legislation to prevent this was defeated in the Senate.
  • The House determined it was not a good idea to statutorily appropriate funds for the Ground Water Investigation Program at the Bureau of Mines.  Although they continue to be funded, they will have to come before the legislature each session with hat in hand.  A statutory appropriation eliminates this and puts the funding on a type of “automatic” that guarantees funding unless otherwise cut.

By Montana Water Well Drillers Association

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