If you’ve lived in the West for any length of time, you know that water is a big deal! There are three main considerations when planning your water use: water rights, irrigation districts (surface water), and wells (groundwater).
You will need to have a water right for any water you plan to use on your farm. Water rights are assigned and have different rights based on the date your water right was issued. For example, if you buy or lease a piece of land that has “senior” water rights, you may be able to continue to access water when flows are too low to serve others in the district. Alternately, if you have land with a fairly new water right, you might be first to lose access to water when it starts drying up in the fall.
Water Rights Considerations from the DNRC
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has resources on water adjudication, water management, water operations, water projects, water rights, and water events. They are a great resource for questions.
This Cornell resource has information about sourcing water for agricultural purposes. While created for farmers in the Northeast, the information is broad and applicable to farming in Montana.
In Montana, water is meted out through various irrigation districts across the state. Each functions a little differently and they are a great asset in learning about your land and the water you’ll have access to. Check with your local Extension office, realtor, or local government to identify which irrigation district governs your property.
While irrigation districts are an amazing system of water delivery for our state, for certain crops they can be a bit challenging. If there are users upstream of you who have faulty sewage systems or who use chemicals that might negatively impact your operation, be sure to consider those elements before finalizing your water plans. If you have a sensitive agricultural product, your ditch rider at the local irrigation district can be a big help in figuring out the upstream users that might cause issues to your water quality.
After that, there’s nothing better than being neighborly. We have found that visiting with neighbors, explaining your production and your particular water issues can be very helpful, particularly if you can work with upstream neighbors to let you know when they’re applying certain chemicals so you can avoid using irrigation water on those days. Of course, not all neighbors are friendly, but most will likely be willing to work with you.
There are several different kinds of wells in Montana and some are approved only for household use (typically up to 2 acres of water usage), others for stock water, and others for larger ag uses. You will need to apply to the state, and possibly local offices as well to get approval for a well you plan to drill on your property. Your local planning and zoning office should be able to direct you to the appropriate regulatory agencies in your community.
If you’re looking at a particular piece of land and wondering about well yields on your property and surrounding properties, check out the Bureau of Mines and Geology. The Ground Water Information Center (GWIC) at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology (MBMG) is the central repository for information on the ground-water resources of Montana. The data include well-completion reports from drillers, measurements of well performance and water quality based on site visits, water-level measurements at various wells for periods of up to 60 years, and water-quality reports for thousands of samples. The databases at GWIC are continually updated with new data from driller’s logs, MBMG research projects, and research projects from other agencies. MBMG includes an online well mapping application, drought reports, statewide monitoring networks, and county-wide statistics.
Each county in Montana is served by a Soil and Water Conservation District and they can also be a great asset in determining your water use and identifying opportunities for conservation.