Drought, fish and 'clean' water regulations all create a growing dispute over water resources

Posted 12/3/02

Among the solutions to keep water in the Big Hole River, valley rancher Ray Weaver suggests pumping water back onto the boulder fields on top of the nearby Continental Divide, creating man-made glaciers and prolonging the runoff.

By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian

Mutual understanding needed to share waters of Big Hole and Jefferson rivers

WHITEHALL, MT - Rising like some brick-and-mortared Loch Ness beast, draped in dreadlocks of algal slime, the ruins of Armsted stood reflected in a shallow pool, drying under a blazing August sun.

The murky myth of what lurked beneath had suddenly surfaced into daylight, and the locals were scared.

"I've never seen anything like it," said farmer Bob Lombardi. "It sure ain't good news."

Armsted hadn't been seen for decades, not since the townsite was flooded by Clark Canyon Dam, since the waters of Montana's Red Rock River went slack and swallowed the school, the mainstreet, the homes.

Clark Canyon was plugged to capture snowmelt from the low-slung Tenody and Snowcrest mountains, creating a trickle-down bank account that could be tapped in the dry dog days of summer.

Downstream farmers working the banks of the Beaverhead and the Jefferson are happy when the water stays put behind that dam, a reservoir of future irrigation.

Biologists and trout fishing outfitters are happy when the water passes through that dam, a steady flow to ensure blue-ribbon fisheries.

But no one is happy these days, not the folks who want water behind the dam nor the folks who want water through the dam.

The problem is, the dam has no water behind it. Years of drought have nearly dried it up.

That's why Armsted has surfaced, and that's why the locals are scared.

Farmers, ordered to stop irrigating, have been spending their days bobbing around the old townsite, chipping bricks from the building where grandma went to school.

"When they shut you off, there's nothing else you can do," Lombardi said. "You just sit back and watch it burn. I suppose if you had enough money, you could go golfing."

Lombardi, fortunately, hasn't watched his crops burn since the late 1950s, since the old days when neighboring farmers were not above sabotaging each other's irrigation pumps in what were hard-fought water wars.

Standing on his Jefferson River Valley spread west of Whitehall, about 75 river miles downstream from Clark Canyon, it's not hard to imagine sun-drenched farmers scuffling for a shot from the river.

Brown hillsides climb up and away in every direction, desert and rock marching into the Tobacco Root Mountains.

Aside from Lombardi's fields, nothing is green. Grasshoppers snap through the crackling dry growth, and mist from the sprinkler heads seems to evaporate into thin air.

"We fought like dogs over the water," Lombardi said, pushing at the dirt with the toe of his boot. "Hell, we went to war, practically. It was starting to get to be a nightmare."

His nightmare was shared by farmers and ranchers throughout the West, where disturbing dustbowl visions had replaced the century-old dream of an agricultural paradise promoted by the U.S. government and railroad barons.

"Once you get honest with yourself," Lombardi said, "you have to admit that it's damn dry. There's just not much water to go around out here."

And what water there is must go around and around and around these days, slaking the thirst of farmers and anglers and developers and towns and endangered fish. But even as demand skyrockets up, the supply of clean water is dwindling, a combination of persistent drought and pollution.

Beulah, Colo., went completely dry last summer, save what water was bottled on grocers' shelves. Located just an hour and a half south of Denver, in the poorly named Wet Mountains, Beulah's plight was a wake-up call for its metro neighbor to the north, which also is running dry.

Phoenix, likewise, is drying fast, and Las Vegas is turning down its landmark fountains.

Grasshoppers, thriving in the hot and dry, stripped crops from Nebraska to California last summer, the largest infestation since before World War II. In many Western states, Montana included, the dry got so dry farmers couldn't even grow weeds.

Closer to home, places like Browning have struggled under a construction moratorium, unable to build more than 1,000 badly needed homes because there is not enough good water.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being funneled into the Hi-Line in hopes of piping water to homes and farms there.

Montana towns are suing neighboring irrigators, forcing agriculture to turn off the tap lest the towns go completely parched.

And Armsted is high and dry.

West of the Continental Divide, most Montana towns are faring relatively well, as the western slope of the Rockies captures Pacific moisture as it travels inland.

But places like Libby are struggling, their aquifer poisoned by creosote, the legacy of manufacturing telephone poles. In Hot Springs, water wars are heating up between the state, the tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation and private landowners.

Up in Kalispell, a proposal to build the state's largest shopping mall has met strong opposition, fed primarily by a fear the project will taint Flathead Lake.

Elsewhere, mining waste and urban growth has fouled ground and surface water with heavy metals and other poisons.

According to a 1998 analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, only 19 percent of Montana's rivers had enough clean water flowing between their banks to support designated uses. About 60 percent were considered "impaired," and 22 percent were labeled "threatened."

Lakes were in a similar condition.

Nearly 98,000 pounds of toxins were dumped into Montana's waters in 1997, the EPA report said, and 20 percent of major industrial facilities were in "significant non-compliance" with clean water laws.

Between 1995 and 1999, 14 Montana community drinking water systems reported health standard violations, affecting 22 percent of all municipal systems, or about 225,000 people. In 1998 alone, Montana issued 23 advisories, warning people not to eat fish from tainted waterways.

"It's a bad deal," Lombardi said, watching Jefferson River water slip past in his irrigation ditch. "We've been careful with our water for generations out here. Now everybody in the entire West is going to have to get more careful. I've always said that water is more important than gasoline. I need water to survive; I can't drink a glass of gasoline. Water is the most precious commodity we've got."

And so, with demand up and supply chronically down, Lombardi joined forces with other farmers and ranchers, who joined fishing guides, who joined politicians and business owners and fishery biologists, and together they created the Jefferson River Watershed Committee.

The goal, he said, was to keep farming and fishing without bleeding the river completely dry.

"Before we started our committee, the boaters, the outfitters, the irrigators, we all blamed each other," he said. "Everyone was the bad guy. Now, we're working together as one big unit. It's the only way we can survive."

Upstream, on the banks of the Big Hole River, Ray Weaver is standing in Lombardi's shoes. Like his neighbors on the Jefferson, the Wisdom-area rancher recognized that, when all was said and done, there just wasn't enough water to go around.

Perhaps it was the dwindling fish numbers that tipped him off. Perhaps it was the fact that the Big Hole was running at zero cubic feet per second beneath the Wisdom bridge in 1988. That is to say, it wasn't running at all.

And so Weaver, like Lombardi, joined a coalition of neighbors both upstream and downstream, neighbors who ranched and farmed and fished and floated, and together they set out looking for a way to keep the river wet.

"The idea is that everybody gives a little bit so the river keeps flowing," he said of the Big Hole Watershed Committee. "Cooperation is the only way we can make it work."

This, then, is a tale of two rivers, both reduced to a trickle by irrigation and drought, both home to fish and fishermen, both the central focus of the communities that stretch out along their banks. And it is a tale of two groups, gathered to ensure there is enough water to go around in a place where there is simply not enough water to go around.

"So far so good," Weaver said of the efforts on the Big Hole. "Last I looked, there was water in the river, and that's a good sign."

The first sign of the Big Hole River appears not long after you cross the Continental Divide an hour and a half south of Missoula.

It spills down fast and clear, a twisting mountain stream that even in early September is running fast and cold. The road breaks away from the water to climb a bench, past the Battle of the Big Hole, where trees give way to wild valley grasses.

Here, the meandering stream is replaced by irrigation ditches, some dry, some bleeding the river even before it has grown up enough to deserve a name. The shade of the mountains gone, the water runs warm under an early autumn sun.

First, the cell phone quits, then the radio, then, suddenly, it's 100 years ago, and you've stepped into the land that Missoula forgot.

A roadside sign says the valley sits at 6,027 feet, only an hour away from but far, far above the vast aquifer that feeds Missoula.

"The famous Big Hole River winds through the valley that is noted for abundant hay, fine cattle and horses, great hunting and fishing, beautiful scenery and friendly people." Or so the sign says.

But the problem is, the fine horses and cattle, the abundant hay and friendly people, they all require lots of water, much to the dismay of those who enjoy the great fishing.

That fact was driven home in 1988, when the Big Hole went dry for most of a month. Then came more dry years, and in 1991 a petition to list the arctic grayling for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In 1994, flows dropped to just two cfs at the Wisdom bridge, a thin trickle winding from standing pool to standing pool.

"The state fish guys came and told me they needed water for the river," said rancher Harold Peterson, "but I was using my water rights for my cattle. So I pushed back, I pushed them to haul water for my cows if they were going to turn me off."

That's how the Big Hole Watershed Committee got its start, Peterson said, and that's how he found himself living an old Southern joke.

The joke, told in times of drought, goes something like this: "It's been so dry, we're hauling water to the river."

Which is exactly what fishery biologists started doing, at Peterson's insistence.

"That was the beginning of the committee," Peterson said. "The state hauled water in, and I shut off my ditch."

Soon, the river was running at a healthy 20 cfs - still well below the 120 cfs or so biologists wanted, but better than the two they had.

After the crisis passed, Peterson started pushing the state to put in stock watering wells, replacing the ditches that leaked and lost water to evaporation.

"The issue was grayling," he said. "Grayling and the fact that we began to realize we're not the only ones that depend on that water for a living."

Frank Stanchfield also depends on that water, relying on downstream flows for his Troutfitters business, located in Wise River.

"The No. 1 priority is the ranchers need the water," Stanchfield said. "But there's a problem. The No. 1 priority is the fish need the water. And the No. 1 priority is the conservationists need the water. And the No. 1 priority is the outfitters need the water."

"But there's not enough water to go around anymore," Peterson said. "There's no question about that. There's not enough water out here for all of us. If there was, we wouldn't be here, would we?" "Here" is the community building in Divide, more than 50 river miles downstream from Peterson's ranch. It's Sept. 18, the night of the monthly meeting of the Big Hole Watershed Committee.

Members have gathered to talk about a voluntary fishing shutdown on the upper river, triggered by low flows. They're here to talk about the fish dying at Clark Canyon Reservoir, where Armsted is still high and dry. They're here to talk about the forecast: dry and warm.

They're here to talk about the fact that no adult grayling turned up in the fall survey.

"It doesn't look good," said state Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jim Magee.

"We can't let the grayling get listed," Weaver said. "If they list that fish, the whole thing's going to change. They'll make damn sure there's water in that river."

He figures the only way to avoid a listing is for locals to make damn sure there's water in that river, but on their terms.

Their terms include possibly damming tributaries, cutting thirsty conifers that fire suppression has allowed to grow up along mountain headwaters, purchasing water rights from big irrigators, leasing water from ranchers for fish, creating a grass bank to help farmers who cut back irrigation in order to help fish.

The solutions also include Weaver's dream of pumping water back onto the Continental Divide, spraying it across vast boulder fields to create man-made glaciers.

The strangest thing about his idea is that he's not alone. Downstream outfitter Stanchfield also can imagine glaciers on the Divide south of Missoula.

"Sometime down the road, that might not seem so far out," he said.

More practical and immediate solutions, however, already are in the works.

Rancher Clayton Huntley stands shin-deep in mud and cow dung at his spread outside Jackson, and shows off his latest solution.

With help from state and federal wildlife agencies, from conservationists and anglers, Huntley drilled wells to water his stock. The result: he's pulling only half the water from the river he used to.

"This is great," he says, pointing at his well. "This is going to work great. It was a community effort to help the fish."

His three wells feed 2,000 cattle, he said, which means water is not diverted from the Big Hole into his irrigation ditch.

But mostly ranchers are resolving the water wars by volunteering to shut off the tap when the river runs too low. The Big Hole Watershed Committee, like the committee on the Jefferson, has established minimum flow triggers. If the river gets too dry, irrigators agree to voluntarily give up their water rights to the fish.

"It's the only answer that makes sense," Weaver said. "Give up some so you don't lose it all."

Some ranchers here envision a "grass bank" upon which cattlemen can draw in return for giving up water, and some have talked about using grants to purchase a big spread where that grass would be grown, but without irrigation.

That would put water back in the river, they said, and would provide a buffer for farmers who cut back.

"A lot of us think we're cowboys," Weaver said, "but we're not. We're grass farmers. The cow is just a way to turn grass into money. But without the grass, there's no money."

So far, the voluntary cut backs seem to be working, according to biologist Magee.

"I think we would have had a dry river the last two years without the committee's drought management plan," he said. "We've come a long way. But we still have a long way to go."

The biggest gains, he said, actually have happened off the river, in places like the Divide community building. Ranchers and biologists and outfitters are finally talking, he said, recognizing each other's opinions and working together to put water back in the river.

"It's all about cooperating," Magee said. "These guys are working with people up and down the river, people they never even used to talk to."

In fact, they're working with Lombardi and his neighbors all the way down on the Jefferson, with the two watershed committees sitting down to discuss their shared water woes.

"Those guys upstream have to understand," Lombardi said, "their water is eventually our water. They can't take it all before it gets here."

And it's up to him, he said, to do his best by the folks downstream of Whitehall.

Lombardi's place, located in what is essentially a desert, speaks of water. Irrigation pipes lie scattered around the yard, tangled with hoses and pumps. His hat advertises a commercial irrigation system.

He was the first to sign on, he said, when Mike Morris came looking to deliver high-tech water monitoring to the Jefferson.

Morris works for the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, and came to the Jefferson armed with computerized soil moisture monitors. The $375 units, Lombardi said, have revolutionized his farm.

"They've absolutely changed the way we irrigate," he said. "I think the land needs water, but it don't. I look at this field and think, well, it's been so many days, so I'd better put some water on this. But then I look at the monitor and say, heck, I can wait another week."What Lombardi and others found, using the monitors, is that they had been irrigating too much. That not only drained the river, but also cut back on crop production. Now, he raises more crop with less water.

"If we're careful," he said, "if we don't put it on the ground, then we can put it back in the river for the boaters, for the fishermen, for whoever wants to enjoy it. For the fish."There is no grayling threat on the Jefferson, no possible endangered species driving ranchers' attempts to conserve water.

"We're doing it because it's the right thing to do," Lombardi said.

And, likely, because if they don't do it, then they can't very well expect the folks upstream to do it for them.

And so farmers on the Jefferson have replaced ditches with wells. They have put in super-efficient pivot irrigators, and they have cut back when flows trickled too low. They have hooked into Agrinet to download temperature and moisture information from their fields. And they have lined ditches with a spray-on chemical to seal the ground beneath.

"With that spray," Lombardi said, "I figure we've saved more than 50 percent of our normal water loss."

He would like to line the three major Jefferson ditches with ceramic tile, he said, but that will cost millions. The spray, by comparison, cost just $7,000 for 22 miles of ditch.

Upstream, rancher Lisa Schmidt wants to cut out the junipers that have lined the river since firefighters began snuffing nature's blazes, saying each juniper drinks 40 gallons a day.

"That's a lot of raindrops that could be percolating down into the river," she said. She also would like to see trapped-out beavers return to the mountains, where their dams and ponds would create a "sponge-effect" for what water there is.

"The goal we all have is, don't use any more than you need," she said. "If you can give some back to the river, then do it."

Bruce Rehwinkel figures that the efficiency efforts of folks like Schmidt and Lombardi could eventually put as much as 100 cfs back in the river without taking any land out of irrigation. That's a lot of water for a river that in 1988 ran at about 3 cfs.

"I think there's good reason to believe we've saved some water," Rehwinkel said. "But it's still not in good shape."

Rehwinkel is a former state biologist who worked this stretch of river before taking a job with Trout Unlimited, and in the past 20 years, he said, the fishery has declined by about 70 percent. It could bounce back, though, if efficiencies picked up 100 cfs in every river that feeds the Jefferson.

"That may be doing some dreaming," he said, "but we have to start somewhere."

But the problem with putting water back in the river by way of efficiencies, according to ranchers on the Big Hole, is that farmers and ranchers will see that added flow as something to be tapped in order to put even more land under irrigation. The minimum flow triggers, then, will become targets, and anything above those targets will be seen as fair game.

Nevertheless, the work to put water back in the river is important work, said rancher Gary Nelson, as is the work to come to terms with other river users.

Nelson chairs the Jefferson committee, and ranches the same land his dad ranched.

"We have to cooperate," he said. "It is just a better way of doing things, where everybody gives up a little bit so everybody can still keep a little bit."

Most places, he said, just work by the law of the land - the oldest water right gets the water.

"But just because someone has an older water right doesn't mean he has a priority for making a living," Nelson said. "We all benefit if we work together."

According to Rehwinkel, "we give a whole lot of lip service to this first-in-time-first-in-right thing, but the reality is all that gets us is dry rivers and brown fields. The practical reality is that we work together to keep the lawyers out and the water in. Cooperating is the only way it works. You say, I'll kick in to line this ditch if I can have some of the water savings for my field or my fish. That's the way it works."

"The whole state needs to be working together on this," agreed Ron Spoon, fisheries biologist for Montana FWP. "This is so good that we're starting to tighten up these systems. Right now, we're doing it in the name of fish, but 20 years from now, with the state of global drinking water in such decline, this will be so important. It's the most important thing we can do."

Spoon watches the Jefferson River slide by not in its banks, but in an irrigation ditch above Weaver's ranch.

"Just look at that," he said. "It's beautiful. It's what we're made of. It's what it's all about."

And if it's true, as many here say, that there isn't enough to go around, then all the solutions being crafted by the committees are that much more important.

"We can do some good things here," Morris said. "But the reality is it can't go on forever. I'm sure there are going to be far greater conflicts over water in all of these valleys, conflicts like these people have never seen."

The ranchers know it, and are ready for war if peace doesn't work.

"I'll do everthing I can to help out and make this thing work," Weaver said. "I'll pitch in. But if it comes to my kid's future or a fish's future, well, that fish has got to go. Hopefully, if we can find some solutions here, well then I won't ever have to make that decision."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com

This series

This is the final installment of a seven-week report on the people and communities whose lives have been shaped by water, as we follow the water from mountaintops to plains to seas. Over the weeks, we've examined the pressures being applied to the waters; the people who depend on a dwindling supply for their survival, and the fish that face extinction.


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