MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
Ranchers in Montana Tuesday asked a state agency to stop giving away water use rights for tens of thousands of new homes being built in areas once dominated by agriculture. Across the arid West, residential subdivisions and agricultural interests are vying for control of water supplies that have emerged as one of the region's most coveted natural resources. In the latest skirmish between the two groups, five Montana ranch owners filed a petition Tuesday with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, charging the state's water rules were stacked against them. The rules allow the small wells used by each house within larger subdivisions to qualify for exemptions from state water laws. Those laws otherwise give precedence to the "senior" rights of farms and ranches. That means dozens or even hundreds of homes can be built in the same general area without any water permits and regardless of the strain that added demand might put on underground aquifers. R a n c h e r Polly Rex characterized the exemption as a loophole that could ultimately rob her of the means to grow hay and water her livestock. Rex said a subdivision of more than 60 homes going up next to her Absarokee ranch could eventually draw down the natural springs she uses on an adjacent 1,250- acre field. "I just really don't think I should change how I do our business because of somebody else," said Rex, whose water rights date to the late 1800s. "We simply cannot hand out water rights in thin air. It's a dumb way to do business." DNRC spokesman John Grassy said agency attorneys were reviewing the ranchers' legal petition, which would require the state to revisit its water regulations. "The petition raises issues of statewide significance," he said. The state rejected a similar petition from the Gallatin County Commission in 2006. Grassy said the water rules proposed by the county would have "completely halted development" across large areas of the state where all water rights already have been allocated. Between 2000 and 2008, almost 30,000 exempt wells were drilled in Montana. During that period, the ranchers' petition claims, fewer than a dozen wells were drilled under state water use permits. Most of the exemptions came outside growing cities in western Montana, including Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.