Water rights in Montana are ridiculous

BearBio

Active Member
When I worked for USFWS in Central Cali, it took me almost 2 years to understand water rights. I gave up on Washington after one year!
 

Swimmy

Well-Known Member
Obviously I'm coming at this from my own self interests. I know the rancher has a completely different perspective. But the idea of de-watering our sensitive and fragile cold water fisheries to raise grass for cattle...
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This is shaping up to be one of the worst drought years on record. This summer is going to be brutal.

On the bright side I'll get to explore a few more high mtn lakes.
 

jangles

Kicked
Well I must say I'd much rather eat a ribeye than a stinky fish but you do make a valid point as many others do . There has to be a happy medium but where that is and how we get there is another war altogether .
 

Swimmy

Well-Known Member
Cadillac Desert is a great read on water rights control and western development. Here in Oregon the feds actually turned off the water to the farmers in the Klamath Basin. First time ever.

Thanks for the rec.

So what did the farmers do without irrigation? Go broke?

Well I must say I'd much rather eat a ribeye than a stinky fish but you do make a valid point as many others do . There has to be a happy medium but where that is and how we get there is another war altogether .

I'm also a bit of a hypocrite in that I do enjoy beef. Granted, I've cut back but you just can't beet a ribeye.

But I'm content with eating beef not raised in the upper reaches of our watersheds. It tastes no different.
 

Salmo_g

Premium
Strong message, but I clicked the "ha ha" emoji because the video is so poorly done. The upshot is this is what happens when state's allow water right claims to exceed natural water supplies.

This is not just Montana, nor is it about taking on Big Ag. The root of the issue is Western Water Law, which places no value, at least no legal value, on instream water use. In most states, fish and aquatic life are not legally deemed "beneficial use" of water. Only out of stream uses like irrigation and stock watering are deemed beneficial.

Fortunately, when WA state wrote its State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) back around 1970 or so, fish and wildlife were included as beneficial uses. The upside is that this gives fish and wildlife a "senior" water right to claims filed after SEPA. The downside is that most sensitive streams were already over-appropriated long before SEPA and the value of instream resources were a consideration.

Unfortunately there is no easy solution. Water right holders are safely protected by a tall stack of case law supporting water rights in all the western states. Many a western law firm has made a fortune from litigating water right disputes. The most probably solution, if there is one, is for states to compensate water right holders for any reduction in water rights. Even under the Endangered Species Act, we're seeing the government pay to install more efficient irrigation methods so that farmers get the same irrigation benefit while using less water and are allowed to sell their "excess" water to other users or to the government for instream resource values.
 

BearBio

Active Member
Cadillac Desert is a great read on water rights control and western development. Here in Oregon the feds actually turned off the water to the farmers in the Klamath Basin. First time ever.
You have to understand that the Klamath Basin is artificial. It was originally a marsh used by migratory birds and anadromous fish. Then it was "drained" and converted to farmland. In the Yakima Basin the water rights total 125% of available water during a wet year. Farmers have been arguing water rights there since an arbitrated, temporary court decision in 1948 (The "48 ajudication"). The Yakima is a mess==I spent my first five years in central Washington doing a biological analysis of the drainage.

On the other hand, the Odessa Aquifer is so depleted that the water is unusable (too expensive, too full of minerals and too hot from being up so deep). Farmers there made a deal to retire wells and plant winter wheat==DNR and BOR started licensing new wells within 2 years as "emergency procedures".

Crab Creek once had bull trout and steelhead=now they enter only the lower 1/2 mile or so. The lower Yakima River received cold water through the aquifer flowing through Union Gap. The water would take 2-5 years to wind its way to the river and upwell to provide cooling refuges for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. Now the water is too warm and smallmouth and catfish get most of the smolts that do out-migrate past Moxee on the Yakima.
 

tyghguy

Member
The farmers will probably get some sort of government assistance for the loss of water. Of course they want no part of this. They are good people and want to farm with water that was promised to them. If the drought continues then at some point they will go broke. Bad situation for everyone. On a good note, it is raining today.
 

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