Montana HB360: Establish Surface Water Assessment and Monitoring Program

H.B. 360, 65th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Mont. 2017) (establishing: (i) a surface water assessment and monitoring program aimed to collect and compile information regarding surface water availability and use; and (ii) a steering committee composed of members from various state and federal agencies, local governments, and other groups with interests in surface water use in Montana).

Montana House Bill 360 (“HB 360”) establishes a surface water assessment and monitoring program. The program, which will be a part of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, will collect and compile surface water information at the direction of a steering committee. HB 360 provides that the steering committee should comprise members from various state and federal agencies, local governments, and other interested parties and organizations. For example, the bill requires the steering committee to include members from Montana’s Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, the Montana State Library’s Natural Resource Information System, and a representative of tribal governments in Montana. Furthermore, the bill suggests that the steering committee should also include members from organizations such as Montana’s Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, a soil and water conservation district, and representatives from the agricultural, ecological protection, and development communities.

Like many areas in the mountain west, Montana is experiencing increased growth and development; thus, the Montana legislature developed this surface water assessment program in order to collect data and information regarding the availability and usage of its surface water. The State implemented a groundwater assessment program, which has provided relevant information regarding the availability and use of groundwater in the state. Proponents of HB 360 contend that implementing the surface water assessment program will produce data similar to the information gathered by the groundwater assessment program and lead to more informed policies regarding the use of surface water in the state.

HB 360 is a relatively short, straightforward bill. The bill does not attempt to pass broad, sweeping legislation. Instead, HB 360 merely establishes a surface water monitoring program. By incorporating the monitoring program into the Bureau of Mines and Geology, the bill does not require a fiscal note to establish funding sources. As such, there were not many changes or challenges to the bill throughout the legislative process.

At the committee hearings, there were no opponents to the bill. Many of the questions brought up in the House and Senate committee hearings concerned how Montana would pay for the program. While HB 360 neither allocates specific funding, nor establishes a concrete plan for securing future funding, sponsors and proponents of the bill did not seem concerned about the cost of implementing the program. Housing the program within the Bureau of Mines and Geology allows the bureau to use its funds to get the program off the ground while the committee works to secure federal grants and donations to continue the monitoring program while looking for future state funding. The only proposed changes to HB 360 came from the Governor’s desk and required appointing a member of the tribal government as part of the steering committee. Unsurprisingly, the House and Senate passed HB 360 with minimal opposition and Governor Steve Bullock signed the bill into law on May 8, 2017.

Supporters of the bill were reluctant to commit to any future policy or implications associated with HB 360. At this point, the bill’s program remains limited to gathering and compiling information on the availability and use of surface water in Montana. HB 360 is supported by numerous organizations and industries within Montana that rely on surface water, such as the cattle and ranching industry, the agriculture and farming industry, conservation organizations, fishing and recreational organizations, and even a realtor and development organization. These organizations understand the importance of having thorough and accurate information regarding the availability and supply of surface water. In the future, the program could help these industries employ more efficient water uses and shape policies regarding surface water in Montana.

HB 360 could be Montana’s first step in establishing sensible surface water policies. The legislation sets up a monitoring program charged with gathering and compiling accurate information regarding surface water systems. This information will provide more accurate and thorough information to the people and industries in Montana that rely on the use and availability of surface water. In turn, this program could lead to more sustainable water policies and practices in the state.

Christopher McMichael

Image: The Montana Capitol in Helena. Flickr user, Jimmy Emerson, DVM. Creative Commons.