Category: Drought

‘Conservation through consensus’ aims to keep Montana’s Big Hole River flowing

I fished Montana’s Big Hole River a few years ago and was impressed by the way most everyone cooperates on that watershed to keep it flowing. Ranchers, fishing guides, environmentalists and community members find a way every year to manage what could be conflicting interests for the good of the watershed. What they all do is truly inspiring: “Conservation through consensus.”

A beautiful Cutty, caught at a former Superfund cleanup site in Montana. (Jim Burns)

As the West looks for solutions to the drought, this is what the Big Hole Watershed Committee writes in their summer newsletter. For context, in California, water cuts to farms reached 5,800 water rights Thursday on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. That means the State Water Rights Control Board now has curtailed more than half the 16,700 water rights in those watersheds, an unprecedented move, according to the Los Angeles Times. The priority date to continue using water is — 1910.

With the water at historic lows, A World War II-era vessel just appeared in Lake Mead, after spending decades submerged at 200 feet. Now, most of it is visible.

Meanwhile, closer to home for fly fishers, a State of California Court of Appeal upheld the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s authority to withhold irrigation water from Long Valley and Little Round Valley in Southern Mono County. (Think Mammoth.) The ruling comes after an initial win for Mono County and the Sierra Club in 2018. LADWP hasn’t indicated how much water it plans to withhold, but given drought conditions and the meager water savings from Angelinos, “you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” as old poet Bob Dylan once sang.

Keep Long Valley Green adds humor to its serious water message at the Mammoth Lakes Fourth of July Parade this year. (Courtesy Friends of the Inyo)

 California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Californians to voluntarily cut water use by 15% at the beginning of the month. Since then, residential water use overall in the state has decreased by 2%.

From the BHWC:

Despite a colder and wetter April than usual, we’re still on track for a poor year for water in the Big Hole. Drought undeniable brings stressful times and tough decisions for anyone whose livelihood depends on water. But times like these also create openings for us to find common ground on long-lasting solutions. It was times like these 27 years ago that catalyzed the formation of BHWC. The opportunity the current drought has created for us is to re-engage on water storage. As with ecological systems, human systems thrive on diversity. So, as we look to solve our water supply issues, instead of a single, silver bullet solution, we’ll pursue a constellation of improvements throughout the landscape that get us the consistent water supply needed for both fish and people.

The approach our founders chose –that of consensus and collaborative conservation — is more recognized and relevant now than ever. One of the message resonating with people is the need to solve problems from the ground up.

There are, of course, hard realities that define limits to what we can do. Drought and water lawy are realities we won’t be changing. Despite tremendous acts of water conservation by many land owners, and dozens of projects we’ve funded over the years, when headwater tributaries dry up as they did last year, there are no good options. Similarly, private property rights to use water are among the stae’s bedrock tenets.

Our door is always open to anyone in search of common ground. Those who complain (often loudly) do so from the sidelines with nothing to bring to the table Their tool of choice is often costly litigation that typically compels agencies to re-do years of work. Given the relentless trend of changing precipitation patterns and the influx of new residents to the state, we need action in the direction of resilience, not resistance to active and adaptive management. As one prominent water expert said recently, “Going slow is losing.”

The work on our plate is to deepen and strengthen our partnerships. From these relationships we can build impactful projects. We’ve brought on a new board member with deep experience working with our forests; we have long-term agreements in place with multiple federal and state agencies and the support of county commissioners; and we’re developing big projects at Pennington Bridge, Elkhorn Mine, the Eastern Pioneers and the upper river. You’ll soon see an announcement for the first Partner Businesses for our 1% for the River: Big Hole Conservation Fund, new signage at the Fishing Access Sites, and a glorious new map of our watershed! There are plenty of seats at the table for anyone willing to do the work. Let’s get to it.

See you on the river, Jim Burns