Year of Award


Document Type

Professional Paper

Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Other Degree Name/Area of Focus


Department or School/College

School of Journalism

Committee Chair

Dennis Swibold

Commitee Members

Nadia White, David Shively


exempt wells, municipal water, water rights


University of Montana


With fewer than a million people, Montana is one of the last states to tackle some problems that accompany population growth. One such problem is access to water. Water users file with the state for rights to use water, both above and below ground. Users with older rights have a higher priority to receive water during droughts. This is the foundation of Montana water law. Water rights experts believe all the water has been claimed in many if not all the river basins in the state. The state is evaluating all water rights to see if this is true. In the meantime, the Legislature has identified basins where they believe all the water is claimed. These basins are closed so no more rights may be issued. People continue to move into closed basins, increasing water demand. Past city leaders usually acquired water rights to large quantities of water, more than the town needed at the time. As neighborhoods were added, towns had the water to serve them. With the recent rapid growth in Montana, some towns have no excess water left. Those in closed basins can claim no additional water from the state. Their only option is to buy existing rights. Buying rights is not a simple process. Along with having to meet rigid criteria, rights have to be available. Those few that are available can get expensive, sometimes too expensive for towns to afford. If a town cannot get rights to more water, people can still move into the area. They will live in sprawling subdivisions where each house has its own well. Montana has an exemption where owners of small wells don’t need rights to use the water. Slowly, people are realizing that these exempt wells take the water on which water rights owners depend. Seniority loses its power when well owners don’t have to play by the rules. So, many are suggesting that the well exemption be modified or eliminated. It’s an uphill battle in the Montana Legislature.



© Copyright 2010 Laura L. Lundquist