Montana Legislation Threatens Fish and Wildlife Resources of the Last Best Place
Montana’s fish and wildlife can’t complain to the state legislature. If they could you can bet hoof, wing, paw, and fin would be banging at the capitol door. In Montana today legislation threatens the state’s fish and wildlife resources by attempting to eliminate practical and legal access to groundwater for the beneficial use of fish and wildlife habitat.
Montana HB 0104 proposes the elimination of beneficial fish and wildlife uses for wells and other developments under 35 gallons per minute. Currently, landowners with small amounts of ground water can file a brief exemption to use the water to benefit fish and wildlife. Under HB 0104, any water development benefiting fish and wildlife would require a new water right - a lengthy and costly process. However, stock-water developments and individual domestic wells, which can be used for lawn irrigation under HB 0104, will continue to qualify for the “exempt” process despite being more consumptive uses.
There’s little argument that the continued development of groundwater resources is among the most significant human-induced changes experienced by the natural hydrological cycle. Groundwater pumping can cause changes in groundwater levels, water quality, stream flows, wetlands, vegetation communities and wildlife diversity. While historic levels of groundwater use and extraction were rarely quantified, experts such as Dr. Marcus Moench of the Institute for Social and Environmental Change agree that "...well numbers have increased exponentially in many parts of the world." Quoted in The World’s Water 2004-2005, Moench said, “As a result (of increased wells), in many areas over-abstraction is severe and groundwater water levels are declining at rates that range from 1 to 3 meters per year, a pattern documented by many researchers."
There's an old rhetorical question in the West: “Which way does the water flow?” The well-known, and usually unspoken, answer here is that water always flows to the money. Water is life, and the state's fish and wildlife are becoming the consistent victims, sacrificed as the money flows toward more powerful agricultural and development interests.
We need to stop legislation that appeases some interests, but does nothing to address the real problem. These small amounts of water developed to supply fish and wildlife needs are not the problem. In order to get a handle on groundwater use, and bring demand in line with supply, the legislature must deal with irrigation demands. Groundwater extraction for agricultural purposes dominates all extraction uses across the arid West. This is true globally, as well, and four countries (China, India, Pakistan, and the United States) account for more than 60% of all extraction, according to The World's Water 2004-2005.
If Montana’s House Bill 0104 is an attempt to control groundwater development, the proposed legislation wholly ignores who actually uses water. In Montana, the U.S., and the world, coming to terms with our shrinking water supply means looking hard and honestly at where and how water resources are used.
At present, it appears that the only strategy routinely promoted for maintaining stream flows for fish and wildlife is "renting" water. The “lease model” is marketed to the public by non-profits and others as a sustainable, long”term solution to water use issues. Some experts disagree with those claims.
While there are clearly financially-motivated interests on every side in these water lease transactions, the basic challenge of that model is that it will require an endless supply of cash. In my book that is a problem. How will these payouts be funded?
There are productive legislative measures that could be taken in Montana to control groundwater and surface water usage. Those measures include implementing proper enforcement of water use, beginning effective mediation of user disputes, funding practical flow gauging, and creating incentives to eliminate the "if you don't use it, you lose it” rule (which encourages unnecessary consumption). Offering long-term incentives to increase property values while keeping water in-stream is another win-win option. It’s time we all pay attention and get involved in the growing crisis surrounding the distribution and use of our precious freshwater resources.
HB0104 should be amended appropriately or (if truly the “Red Herring” it appears) simply killed.
Michael Sprague is president and founder of Trout Headwaters, Inc., (THI) an aquatic design/build firm and CEO of THI’s sister technology company, THI RiverWorks, Inc., both based in Livingston, Mont. Through his two companies Sprague has helped to advance sustainable river restoration technologies, becoming a leader in the field of stream bank biostabilization.