Opinion: Montana has valid water needs, too - As western Montana river management changes to reflect balance, Missouri river flows favor downstream states

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Opinion: The Missoulian

Montana's water flows differently on this side of the Continental Divide than the other.

Over here, the Northwest Power Planning Council recently agreed the amount of water released from Hungry Horse Reservoir, Flathead Lake and Lake Koocanusa must take into account the needs of Montana's fish and wildlife, economy and the residents who depend on them.

East of the Divide, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to drain gigantic Fort Peck Reservoir on the Missouri River for the benefit of gravel-hauling barges in downstream states.

The power council is appropriately balancing upstream and downstream interests. Oregon and Washington would like more water released in dry years from Montana into the Columbia River to benefit salmon and steelhead. That's a legitimate interest, but it doesn't outweigh Montana's interests in resident fish and wildlife, useful lakes and the economic and recreational importance associated with them. Recognizing the need to respect upstream and downstream interests forced Northwest states to seek a balanced compromise. The result is a more sophisticated approach to managing water flows, one that comes closer to mimicking natural flows, that promises to leave Montana's reservoirs fuller in the summer while still ensuring salmon and steelhead adequate flows.

By contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers last week announced a new plan for managing the upper Missouri River that looks depressingly similar - at least in effect - to its old plan. The water-management plan's primary emphasis is ensuring plenty of water to float barges in Missouri.

What about upstream interests? The plan calls for draining upstream reservoirs a tad slower than in recent years. Oh, yes, and finding and moving nests of threatened and endangered birds to reduce losses from flooding.

Fort Peck Reservoir - a hugely important natural and economic feature in east-central Montana - is about 34 feet below full pool, and dropping. It's been four years since the water was even close to the lake shore. The prolonged drawdown affects the lake's usefulness, as well as its productivity.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., complained earlier this year in a letter to the Corps of Engineers, "It defies common sense to keep sending water from Fort Peck downstream, particularly to states that haven't been hit nearly as hard by drought as Montana. We've suffered enough."

Prolonged drought means there isn't enough water to satisfy everyone. Under such circumstances, states need to share the water. "Share" doesn't mean we give, they take. At least, it shouldn't.


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