County and State Failed to Consider Water and Land Resources of Horse Creek Hills Subdivision
On Friday, August 26, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and several of its members filed a complaint against Broadwater County and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for the July 28th, 2022 approval of the Horse Creek Hills subdivision, a major new phased subdivision reliant wholly on ‘exempt wells’ for water supplies. The County and Department failed to perform their respective duties to consider impacts and protect water and land resources from unreasonable degradation under the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act and the Montana Water Use Act.
“The County has ignored the overwhelming public opposition to Horse Creek Hills without even taking a hard look at the negative impacts this subdivision will have on our agricultural operations, water resources, local wildlife, and the livelihoods of longstanding Broadwater County residents,” said Carole Plymale, nearby cattle rancher in Townsend, Montana. “Our senior water rights, cattle operations, neighborhood roads, and quality of life will all bear the brunt of this subdivision if it goes forward.”
The project, Horse Creek Hills, is a 4-phase 435 acre major new subdivision sited in Broadwater County on the eastern shore and directly upstream from Canyon Ferry Lake and the nearby Confederate Creek. The proposed site is a rural, predominantly agricultural landscape and borders both state and Bureau of Reclamation lands. The trophy development includes four subdivisions with a total of 39 residential lots and two commercial lots that are likely to become a gas station and convenience store.
The 39 residential lots and 2 commercial lots have received Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) sign-off to use aggregated exempt wells. At the same time no entity has examined the potentially significant impacts of allowing dozens of new individual septic systems or how 46 exempt wells could dewater and degrade local water resources, despite longstanding concerns of water availability in Confederate Creek and nutrient pollution problems already in downstream Canyon Ferry Reservoir.
“We’ve had barely enough water to run our pivots during these drought-stricken summers,” said Toby Dundas, cattle rancher and adjacent landowner in Townsend, Montana. “Imagine what 40 new wells will do to my 1886 water rights and 7th generation ranch.”
Horse Creek Hills is situated in a “closed water rights basin.” Despite the closure and several senior water rights nearby, the DNRC approved HCH’s reliance on exempt groundwater wells for the entire subdivision. At the same time Broadwater County failed to identify or evaluate potential impacts of 40+ new exempt wells on agricultural water uses or senior water rights, mandatory duties of local government under the Subdivisions and Platting Act.
Similarly, there is no evidence that new water demands from HCH will not adversely affect flows within Confederate Creek. Confederate Creek, which is directly adjacent to HCH, provides important habitat and spawning grounds for rainbow trout, yet local decisionmakers have turned a blind eye to the potentially severe impacts of 40+ new exempt wells could entail for the local fishery.
Similarly, Broadwater County failed to take into account the potential negative natural resource impacts of 40+ new individual septic systems and trophy home lawns with herbicides and pesticides on Confederate Creek or Canyon Ferry. Individual septic systems are not designed to actively reduce nutrient loading to local water resources, and both Confederate Gulch and Canyon Ferry are already legally impaired by nutrient pollution based on DEQ’s 2020 Integrated Report and 303(d) List of Impaired Waters.
Despite broad opposition from local community members, adjacent and nearby landowners with senior water rights and whom rely on local water for their agricultural operations; fisheries and wildlife biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks concerned over the impacts on local wildlife populations, rainbow trout, and streamflows in Confederate Creek; the Broadwater Conservation District with concerns on water quality, quantity, and the County’s failure to gather adequate information necessary for sound decisions; and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s recommendations to deny the project for the aforementioned reasons, Broadwater County rubber stamped the Horse Creek Hills subdivision, putting this unique agrarian landscape, local water quality, senior water rights, and keynote big game habitat at-risk.
Waterkeeper will protect its members’ right to informed decisionmaking and hold Broadwater County and the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation accountable to follow the law and meaningfully address legitimate public concerns about water security, pollution control, and responsible growth.