One of Governor Ted Schwinden’s favorite excuses for his failure to prepare Montana for the state’s severe drought in the 1980s was: “Montana is a ‘next year’ state.” It means that even though our rivers have dried up, the fish have died, the crops have dried up, and as he put it, “the whole world of destruction is on fire,” we should all hope that “next year” will be better.
True, it is “next year” following last year’s severe drought and I think what, not the best, is worse – and Republican Governor Greg Gianforte is no better prepared for that than his predecessor Democrat 37 years ago.
After leading the Governor’s Drought Task Force back in the 1980s and early ’90s, it is sad to hear reports of damage coming. The level of rivers and reserves is declining, wells are drying up, vegetation is being destroyed, wildlife is being pushed into the remaining green fields, and the destruction of waterless aquatic ecosystems.
The effects of extreme drought are widespread, such as economic and environmental damage. When there is a package of snow and a little rain the whole cycle of use and re-charging is interrupted. “Consumption” continues — irrigators continue to irrigate rivers, even to the point of placing streams in their water reservoirs to dump what remains of our world-famous trout streams into rough, linear ditches. Fish, of course, follow water; they have no choice. And when the rivers eventually recede and there is no more water to divert, the fish die in the trenches.
The negative consequences are for society and the government to end the struggle for one sector of the economy against another while less water competition is getting worse day by day. For those who live on the river, it is the same old story – sorry, but our rivers are overused and by law irrigators have legal rights to divert their water. When it comes to trout against alfalfa, alfalfa always wins – even if there is not enough water to bring more than one cut.
Currently one small example from that woe story is playing in the Smith River whose “floating season” closed in early June last year and is highly likely to see this season pass without enough water to float. Despite being the only government river the “required permit” – with thousands of people across the state and the nation paying to apply for fishing and floating permits every year – we are looking at another “no-float” year.
As a spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks said last year: “Our typical recommendations for floating river levels are 350 cfs (cubic feet per second) for sliding boats, 250 cfs for rafts, and 150 cfs for canoes and kayak. ” According to the USGS “current state” flow report, the river runs at 63 highs and 115 on the Eden Bridge coming out, 59 miles down.
Unfortunately, this is not a mistake – almost all Montana rivers flow between one-third and a half of the average long-term flow – and are about two months to summer. Municipalities are already urging residents to reduce water use, although non-ag water use contributes less than 4% of Montana water use. As Fairfield fire chief told reporters recently: “… if they want to be able to brush their teeth and clean the toilet, they should not run in their yard.”
Schwinden often complained that he “could not make it rain.” Nor Governor Gianforte can. And considering the lack of governmental preparation all these years later, it seems like Montanans are alone again in a severe drought – such as rivers, forests, fish, wildlife and our businesses.
George Ochenski is a longtime resident of Helena. His columns appear on Daily Montanan on Fridays.