About our Water and Environmental Programs

Groundwater is one of Montana’s greatest natural assets. Groundwater and surface-water studies conducted by the MBMG support our mandate to promote orderly and responsible development of the energy, groundwater, and mineral resources of the State. The MBMG organizes studies, data collection, public databases, and interpretive reports related to Montana’s water resources through several programs:

The Ground Water Assessment Program (GWAP), established by the Montana Legislature in 1991, oversees the collection, interpretation, and publication of essential groundwater information. An interagency Assessment Steering Committee selects study areas, coordinates groundwater research among State, Federal, and local government units, and oversees Assessment Program progress. GWAP includes three complementary efforts to improve the understanding of Montana’s groundwater resources:

  1. The Ground Water Monitoring Program systematically tracks long-term water-level and water-quality changes in Montana’s major aquifers. A network of strategically located wells across the State produces groundwater-level records that directly measure how Montana’s aquifers respond to seasonal, climatic, developmental, or land-use factors. The more than 800-well network includes some that have been regularly monitored since the 1950s. Several partners maintain local groundwater-level networks and share their data with the MBMG. Cooperators include: Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes; Gallatin Local Water Quality District; Missoula Valley Water Quality District; Lewis and Clark Water Quality Protection District; the Sheridan Conservation District, and the Yellowstone Controlled Groundwater Area. In 2009, the MBMG joined the National Ground Water Monitoring Network (NGWMN), which provides Federal funding opportunities for monitoring in Montana. These funds are used to maintain network connections and improve the quality of monitoring sites.
  2. The Ground Water Characterization Program. MBMG hydrogeologists systematically assess and document the hydrogeology and quality of the State’s major aquifers. Working through specific areas prioritized by the Ground Water Assessment Steering Committee, the MBMG has completed fieldwork in nine regions encompassing 24 counties and produced more than 70 maps and assessments. As of 2022, data collection efforts in Lincoln and Sanders counties are ongoing, to assess the basin-fill and fractured-rock aquifers that supply most rural homes and several municipalities.
  3. The Ground Water Information Center (GWIC) database is the repository for the State’s groundwater information—water-well logs and all MBMG groundwater data from past and current projects are stored in the database. GWIC makes groundwater information readily available to the public through online access to water-well logs, hydrographs that track water levels in the State’s major aquifers, and a variety of field, chemical, and physical data. The interactive GWIC mapper allows map-based data retrievals of water-well logs and hydrographs. The Surface Water Assessment and Monitoring Program (SWAMP) mapper provides a comprehensive display of surface-water monitoring sites across the State, and provides map-based access to MBMG stream-discharge data. Stream gages monitored and maintained by the USGS and DNRC are also included. A pilot program between the MBMG and the Gallatin Local Water Quality District (GLWQD) is developing the methodology for other agencies to include their data in the SWAMP database; currently 13 sites from the Gallatin Valley are available through SWAMP.

The Ground Water Investigation Program (GWIP) encompasses site-specific studies of groundwater resource concerns that support statewide and local decisions regarding water. The Montana Legislature established GWIP in 2009, with a design that allows local communities or other stakeholders to nominate projects for study. The interagency Ground Water Assessment Steering Committee ranks and prioritizes project nominations every 3 years. GWIP projects address both groundwater quality and quantity, encompassing questions related to effects of existing and proposed groundwater development on streamflow, changes in land use, and evaluating effects of drought on groundwater and surface-water supplies. MBMG hydrogeologists bring data-driven scientific analyses that address important questions to Montana’s citizens, business communities, and agricultural and industrial stakeholders.

Environmental Program: The Environmental Program undertakes site-specific investigations with an emphasis on water quality, water level, and discharge from abandoned mines. Studies primarily focus on environmental impacts related to historic mining and milling operations (i.e., abandoned and inactive mines), and are typically funded through grants and agreements with State, local, and Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Some of these projects extend in various forms over decades, with a notable example being MBMG monitoring of the Berkeley Pit and underground mines in Butte and abandoned coal mines in Belt. This program has a long-term cooperative agreement with the USGS for operation of stream gages for the collection of water quality and flow data in the Upper Clark Fork Drainage. Information collected at these sites is used by multiple stakeholders throughout the Clark Fork Drainage in ongoing stream remediation. Other topical studies have related to the presence of organic compounds in groundwater, reclamation of dryland salinity problems throughout central and south-central Montana, and elevated concentrations of antimony and arsenic in drinking water supplies.

Energy Program: The Energy Program, housed in the Billings Office of the MBMG, includes both resource mapping of coal and hydrocarbon reserves and groundwater studies and monitoring around coal, gas, and oil development. The MBMG has been responsible for measuring and interpreting groundwater responses to coal mining since the late 1960s and includes one of the nation’s longest, continuously measured monitoring well networks. This work was extended into the coalbed methane fields (CBM; a form of natural gas in coalbeds) when CBM production was introduced to southeastern Montana in 1999. The MBMG has developed good working relationships with landowners, industry, and regulators near coal development, and the science provided by the MBMG has eased concerns about water loss and contamination.

Groundwater studies related to oil development in eastern Montana began in the 1980s and continue through site-specific studies today. Over the past 15 years, the wide swings in development activities in oil fields and the introduction of hydraulic fracturing caused a rise in citizen concerns about potential effects to their water resources. In response, the MBMG, in cooperation with State and Federal agencies, sampled baseline water quality in areas of oil development.

Third-party monitoring by the Energy Program provides data and interpretations that are used by industry, regulators, and landowners. The Program partners with numerous Federal, State, and local agencies to ensure the Energy Program is relevant, responsive, and founded in sound science. Some of our partners include: Montana Conservation Districts, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Many other groundwater studies conducted by the MBMG address various aspects of Montana’s environment, including investigations of water quantity issues related to agricultural irrigation, identifying groundwater resources and availability, and attending to specific concerns brought to the MBMG by Montana’s communities.