Montana Off-Grid Laws: An In Depth Guide

Last Updated: January 19, 2022

With its abundance of affordable rural land, Montana is becoming increasingly popular for off-grid living.

Before you start looking for your dream property in Montana though, make sure you understand that laws about off-grid living, especially for zoning, water rights, electric, and waste removal

Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Montana?

Off-grid living is legal in Montana.  State and local laws even specifically address many off-grid systems, which can make it much easier to get a permit to legally build your home using newer or experimental systems.

However, don’t expect that you’ll be able to do whatever you want on your land.  You’ll ultimately need to get permits and follow building regulations if you want to live legally off-the-grid in Montana.

Montana Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living

When it comes to living off-grid legally, local zoning laws ultimately determine what you can do on your land.  Luckily, Montana has some of the most relaxed zoning laws in the USA.

For example, North Gallatin Canyon regulations do not require construction permits.  The main rules are about putting up signs on your property.  In nearby Bear Canyon, there is zoning but residents are allowed to keep animals and grow food as a right, even on 1-acre plots.

As with Texas, there is even a lot of land in Montana which still has no zoning at all (such as in Stillwater County).  You’ll essentially be able to do whatever you want on your own land. Living on land without zoning isn’t always a good thing though.  Montana is experiencing a huge population growth, which means a subdivision could pop up right across from your previously-untouched land.

Every county in Montana is required to have a “subdivision ordinance”.  These regulate plots of land less than 160 acres with the goal of preserving open space.  As an alternative to zoning, some areas have “development permits”  or “performance standards” which focus more on building standards and lot sizes than what you can do with the property. Read more about those regulations here.

If there aren’t any zoning laws and you want there to be (such as to prevent a massive subdivision from being built nearby), Montana does have laws that allow local residents to adopt or amend districts.

Off-Grid Electricity in Montana

Using off-grid electricity is completely legal in Montana.  However, you will need to get an electrical permit to install your system.

Local counties may also require a building permit and have zoning rules about the size and placement of the system.  Currently, Bozeman has the strictest rules in Montana about installing solar systems. You can read about solar regulations and permit costs in Montana here.

Because it is such a windy state, small wind turbines are a good option for off-grid living in Montana.   Compared to other states, the rules on wind turbines are fairly relaxed.  Read more about wind power in Montana here.

Montana does offer some incentives for using renewable energy.  You can see a list of incentives here.

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Off-Grid Water in Montana

Virtually all of Montana is very dry and many parts are under constant drought conditions.  Because of this, water rights are highly controlled and you may have trouble getting enough water for your off-grid property.

As a result of the drought, the state as well as many local governments have some rules about how you can use water.  For example, in some cities, you can’t water your lawn without a permit.

See a drought map of Montana here.

Who Owns the Water in Montana?

Under Montana law, all water in belongs to the State.  However, people can own the right to use the water.  Getting water rights is a very complicated process. It isn’t guaranteed that you’ll get water rights, even if you have water on or below your property.

Key Points about Obtaining Water Rights in Montana

  • Under the 1973 Water Use Act, all new water rights must be obtained from the Montana Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). This usually requires a permit, fees and extensive documentation.
  • Water rights in Montana are generally tied to a property. For example, if you buy a property that has water rights, the water rights will be transferred to you. This isn’t always the case though.  Landowners can detach the land from the water rights, such as by selling the water rights to one person and the land to another.
  • Montana uses the law of prior appropriation. This essentially means that whoever obtained the water rights first has first dibs to use the water. For example, in a time of drought, an upstream junior water rights holder might not be allowed to use water passing through their property so the senior rights holder downstream can use it.
  • You must use the water in order to keep the rights. If you only
  • Water must be put to beneficial use.
  • Many basins in Montana are closed to water appropriations. You will not be able to get a permit to use this water.

For more info about Montana water rights laws, read:

Surface Water

If you have a stream or lake on your property, you will need to get a beneficial use permit. The permit process is long and complicated, so you’ll need to plan ahead.

There is an exception to the surface water permit requirement.  You can construct a livestock pit or reservoir without a permit if all the following are met:

  • It is located in a non-perennial flowing stream
  • The capacity is less than 15 acre-feet with an annual appropriation of less than 30 acre-feet
  • Constructed on and accessible to a parcel of land 40 acres or larger and owned or under the control of the applicant.

Even with this exception, you will still need to file for a provisional permit within 60 days of constructing the reservoir.  The DNRC can revoke the permit if it affects prior water rights.

Well Water

In Montana, you do not need to get a water rights permit for a groundwater if the appropriation is less than 35 gallons per minute and no more than 10 acre-feet of water per year.

Within 60 days of drilling the well and putting it to use, you’ll need to submit a notice to the DNRC.  Wells using more water than this require a Groundwater Application for Beneficial Use Permit, which is a long, complex process.

Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Montana

Even though the state owns “atmospheric water,” rainwater harvesting is legal in Montana and does not require a permit.

The state website says,

“You can collect rainwater from rooftops in mosquito-proof containers. The water can be used later on lawn or garden areas.”

Some areas, such as Missoula, have even initiated programs encouraging rainwater harvesting.  However, the DNRC asks (see here) that anyone proposing rainwater harvest of more than 0.1 acre feet contact them before moving forward.

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Sewage and Waste Removal

Montana’s sewage regulations are surprisingly modern and relaxed.  The law specifically mentions newer systems like composting toilets and “experimental systems.”

Because the law is detailed, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a permit for your off-grid waste disposal system.  The biggest hurdle you might encounter is the law that requires all homes which have running water to install septic or connect to the municipal sewage system.

You can read the details of Montana’s on-site sewage laws in Circular DEQ 4.

Compost Toilet Laws in Montana

Composting toilets are legal in Montana, even as your only sewage disposal method.  However, if your home has running water, you’ll also need to have a septic tank.  There are also other regulations, such as that the toilet must:

  • Meet NSF Standard 41
  • Separate liquids from solids
  • Have continuous forced ventilation to the outside
  • Produce a stable humus material with less than 200 most probable number (MPN) per gram of fecal coliform

There are also regulations about how to remove and dispose of composted waste, though this generally won’t prohibit you from composting “humanure” in a backyard compost heap.  Wastewater must be disposed of in a septic tank or absorption field.

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Outhouses Laws in Montana

Outhouses (called pit privies) are legal in Montana.  However, unlined pit privies are only legal for structures that have no running water or piped water supply.  If your home does have running water, then you’ll need to use a lined pit privy (vault toilet) and have it pumped out as well as have septic for your home’s wastewater.

There are some rules about how pit privies must be built, but they are generally very relaxed compared to other state laws.

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Graywater Recycling

Graywater recycling is legal in Montana but usually requires a permit.  The water must ultimately be disposed of by an approved sewage system (such as using graywater to flush a toilet).

Graywater can be used to irrigate plants if those plants aren’t for human consumption and the water doesn’t contain sewage or hazardous chemicals. You can read the details of the law here.

Do you live off-grid in Montana? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

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