Bozeman City Hall

Bozeman City Hall is pictured on Aug. 12.

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A new state rule limiting the number of wells in new developments is forcing Bozeman to change its own codes.

A change in guidance from the state Department of Natural Resources means only one “exempt” well used for irrigation purposes is allowed within a development, regardless of its size. An exempt well is any well that draws less than 10 acre feet of water per year, city senior planner Tom Rogers said at a city commission meeting this week.

Rogers said that historically, the city’s policy has been to use these wells to irrigate public or private lands rather than municipal water.

There are 1,200 exempt wells in the city, Rogers said.

Larger developments typically have more wells, he said, using an example of a 160-acre development that has six exempt wells.

The new state rule is significant, Rogers said.

“It inadvertently changes some of the policies that we at the city have used for many years for irrigating public lands, right of ways, public parks, and private and public open spaces,” Rogers said.

According to the agenda documents, the city requires well water to be used for irrigating public areas, and requires those areas to be landscaped. The changes mean that municipal water could be used for future irrigation if the exempt well does not provide enough water.

Rogers noted the proposed changes are unrelated to other work the city is doing to promote water conservation, including recently approved permanent watering restrictions. The rule is not retroactive and will only apply to future developments.

City commissioners unanimously approved the changes to adopt the new state rule at their meeting Tuesday.

Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham pointed out the city is just trying to align with state rules.

He said the rule change could require more thought to be put into landscaping for future developments.

“You have to make really conscious choices about where our heaviest watering is going to be and where we’re going to be spreading Montana’s best tasting water,” Cunningham said. “I think it hastens the need to have this conversation about drought-tolerant grasses, native gasses and all of those things, using mulch and other surfaces rather than grass.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at or 406-582-2607.

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