Montana judge’s ruling in water supply case could halt development 

Groundwater shortage put kibosh on 29-home project

Montana Water Shortage Ruling Could Restrict Development

A judge’s ruling against a developer because of a water shortage in Montana could set the stage for future building limitations in the state.

Developer Errol Galt, who is a member of a prominent political family in Montana, wanted to build 39 homes, about an hour west of Helena, that would draw their water from wells, the New York Times reported.

The development received approval from state and county officials, even though evidence suggested that groundwater was in decline in the area. But local residents sued to stop the development, arguing that consideration had not been given to water supply.

District court Judge Michael McMahon ruled in their favor and wrote that local approval had been granted based on an environmental review that was “abjectly deficient” and “astonishing.”

McMahon took his ruling a step further, finding that Montana’s policy for approving developments violates state law.

He accused the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation of allowing the ongoing “appropriation of millions if not billions of gallons of water that under our laws should have been left in aquifers.”

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Galt’s development company hasn’t said whether it will appeal the ruling. But it could significantly limit development in rural Montana, said Guy Alsentzer, executive director of environmental group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, which represented residents seeking to block the development.

“The pendulum for the longest time was largely swinging in support of development at any cost,” Mr. Alsentzer told the newspaper. The ruling “is a big moment for Montana land use policy,” he said.

It could halt development in Montana outside of cities, Eugene Graf, president of the Montana Building Industry Association, told the outlet.

Ranchers like Carole Plymale, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, say irrigation is already difficult. She has about 400 cattle and grows alfalfa for feed, and she worries development could worsen water shortages.

Restricting the pipeline of housing construction will make homes less affordable, Graf said. The median home price in Montana has doubled to about $529,000 since 2015, and the state has faced a rush of incoming migration since the pandemic.

—Rachel Stone

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