Upstream water storage key to Big Hole River’s future

Upstream water storage key to Big Hole River’s future

Source: Montana Standard
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Last Thursday’s meeting in Wise River about plans to poison more than 60 miles of creeks in the French Creek drainage in order to provide exclusive habitat for Westslope cutthroat and grayling was well-attended, contentious at times, and long overdue.

We applaud and understand the landowners’ passion for their “pieces of heaven,” which are in fact exactly that – among the most beautiful and idyllic places in America. We also understand the argument for taking proactive steps to protect both cutts and grayling.

We can only imagine how we’d feel if a state agency announced plans to poison the creek where we took our children and grandchildren fishing – a creek we grew up with, that burbles only a few yards from our front porch, that is healthy and full of trout – not just the natives but the “non-native” Browns and brookies and rainbows.

A public comment period last year attracted very few comments – the FWP Region Three Supervisor’s letter of decision in favor of the project quoted only two – but some residents say they were blindsided by the project.

None of us on the editorial board are fish biologists. But all of us enjoy and revere the Big Hole Valley. We find ourselves in great sympathy with the landowners, many of whom are elderly and may never see the successful fruition of this project – even if everything goes right, the fishery will be decimated in the short term, and far from what it is now for several years, if not longer.

But we believe there is a larger question implicit in today’s world – for FWP, and for Big Hole Valley landowners. The Big Hole this morning is running at somewhat less than 300 cfs. That’s not enough. The extreme low-water conditions – in a year where the mountain ranges had well above average snowpack – bodes ill for this magnificent river, not just a fishery and an agricultural resource but home to a stunning variety of wildlife and “home water” to many of us in southwest Montana.

We believe that some upstream water storage can come to the rescue of the Big Hole in the hot Augusts of the future much as Silver Lake came to the rescue of the upper Clark Fork this very week. And we believe careful planning and execution of that project is the most responsible thing the state, landowners and the federal government could do for the fish and for the river. If done right, small upstream impoundments and wetlands would not spoil the wild, free nature of the river and indeed would provide a lifeline for trout and other aquatic species in times like these.

As Dr. Paul Siddoway wrote on these pages last year at this time, “The logical solution is off-stream storage, both structural and non-structural, allowing us to hold onto some of the millions of gallons of water that leave the drainage every spring and end up in reservoirs hundreds of miles downstream.”

We believe he is right, and that therefore it is time for the sportsmen, conservationists, land owners, and governmental agencies to come to grips with the fact that our changing climate – and conditions caused by pivot irrigation as opposed to flood irrigation, for instance – have created circumstances far different from those that existed the last time such a plan was seriously considered in the Legislature.

This is not to denigrate the great work the Big Hole Watershed Committee has already done. But clearly more needs to happen.

Saving the Big Hole is essential to southwest Montana and to the state as a whole. We are glad that the state is so concerned for the Westslope cutthroat and the grayling. But the crisis we face on the river transcends such niceties.