By Montana Grant

Posted: July 25, 2021


Montana is famous for its Waters! Our Blue-Ribbon trout streams, alpine lakes, rivers, and wetlands. The problem is that all live needs Water.

Water is for fighting and whiskey is for drinking. Without water, farmers are out of luck. If rivers run dry, fish and aquatic ecosystems die. Snow is stored water until it melts. It is supposed to be absorbed into the ground and replenish watersheds. If the landscape can absorb a limited amount of water, the rest flushes downstream. If the land gets no rain, the spigot for water is turned off.

Humans are Bags of Water. Without it, we do not survive. Water is also a finite resource. There is no supertanker in outer space that refills our ecosystem with more water.

Our Earth is made to support life. Aquifers are underground reservoirs of water that we access for wells, irrigation, and survival. These aquifers are dependent upon porous surfaces to allow for the water soak into the soil. They are limited and finite.

Our surface waters depend upon weather, rain, and snow for replenishment. If we have low levels of precipitation, along with warmer temperatures due to Climate Change, we will have a drought. That means that fire season escalates, fisheries flounder, lawns go brown, and farmers’ fields dry up.

Whose water needs are most important? Farmers, fisheries, Parks, communities, recreationists, hunters, sportsmen, gardeners, or… Everyone is no more or no less important. We float together or not at all.

Every time we build a reservoir, canal, irrigation ditch, lake, or pond, we create more evaporation. The Hydrologic Cycle will go on, but the water will flow somewhere else. These evaporation dishes make water convenient but vulnerable to loss.  The water for new ponds is often pumped out of an irrigation ditch, river, or aquifer.

Ennis Lake is a perfect example. The Ennis Hydroelectric Dam creates power from water. A reservoir of stored water fuels the power plant. The Ennis Lake also collects energy from the sun that elevates the water temperature downstream. The Madison River is warmer downstream, and the fishery is currently closed.

Newcomers to Montana all want waterfront property, ponds, and irrigation. More homes, buildings, roads, schools, etc. means more impervious surfaces. The number of permits for new ponds in Montana is overflowing. This means water for one project must come from somewhere else. Every submersible pump, headgate, well, or system that removes water from our natural waterways, reduces their normal and natural flow. This impacts everyone.

The Bighole River currently has water levels at all-time lows. Fisheries are at risk. If you drive along the shallow river, the fields are green, and the abundant irrigation ditches are full. Compromise is important but at what cost to who or what?

The Bighorn River is a world-class cold-water trout fishery. It only exists because of the Yellowtail Dam, built to control water for downstream irrigation. The cold-water release created an amazing trout fishery, that also is an economic boom for the state. In a drought year, or decade, water for irrigation takes priority and the fishery suffers.

Compromise is critical. Every water resource user must adapt and adjust to our changing ecosystem.

With the construction of every home, building, parking lot, or highway, more water is lost due to non-porous or impervious surfaces. The water needs to go somewhere and is directed into sewage systems, watersheds, and places where it evaporates, is lost, or not needed. Flooding and runoff direct water into our watersheds like a firehose, where the sediments and gravels are washed away, along with any hope of spawning or insect life.

We are upstream of most places where water is needed. More water siphoned off upstream means less water downstream. Lake Meade and lakes along the Colorado River at record lows while development upstream is at record highs.

Every acre and living thing need water. There is a limited amount of excess. If a 4-lane highway carries the traffic of 6 lane highway, the traffic stops flowing. Montana is at that turning point now.

Water needs to flow not flush!

Montana Grant