Yellowstone River still wild, but faces challenges from developmentSource: Great Falls Tribune
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David Murray , firstname.lastname@example.org
The Crow people called it “Elk River;” a ribbon of water that descended to the plains and vibrated with life — elk, bison and deer. Nearer to its confluence with the Missouri, the Hidatsa and Minnetarre recalled it by the color of the sandstone bluffs that hemmed it in — the “Yellow Rock” or “Roche Jaunes” as the French trappers would later call it. It was the name that stuck.
For more than two centuries the Yellowstone River flowed deep across the American consciousness. Only a handful of U.S. waterways can claim the same stockpile of history, natural beauty, recreational magnetism and economic importance.
Most associate this great American river with the National Park that shares its name; a mythical place where sulfurous mud pots boil and subterranean waters leap into the sky, some on a faithful schedule. But the true source of the Yellowstone actually lies further south and outside the park.
From snowfields on Younts Peak in the Teton Wilderness, the Yellowstone flows 692 miles north and east to where it meets the muddy Missouri, just inside the North Dakota border. Tour brochures enthusiastically point out that the Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the contiguous United — States which is true, but the Yellowstone of 2017 is not the same river mapped by William Clark in 1806.
Agricultural demands, fisheries, recreation, climate change, municipal water use, flood control, habitat — preservation the list of stressors on the Yellowstone’s riverine ecosystem mirrors those of every major waterway in the United States. They were highlighted just one summer ago when low stream flows and high water temperatures led to a dramatic fish kill.
“A previously unidentified strain of parasite has grown so prolific in the Yellowstone River that it is overwhelming whitefish, killing thousands and prompting the state last week to close more than 180 miles of the river to all recreation,” the Billings Gazette reported on Aug. 23, 2016.
A nearly microscopic, jellyfish-like parasite called T. bryosalmonae was identified as the agent of die off. In warm water conditions, populations of T. bryoslamonae can explode, invading the kidneys of salmon and trout and leading to a devastating disease called proliferative kidney disease or PKD.
“The sheer parasite loading itself is almost shocking the fish, that’s what’s killing them,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks told section chief, Eileen Ryce, told a crowd of anxious residents on Aug. 23.
The PKD outbreak led to a mandatory 17-day closure of all fishing and boating on upper Yellowstone during the height of the tourist season. The Institute of Tourism for the University of Montana calculates the closure cost Park County businesses roughly half a million dollars over the last weeks of summer in 2016.
It was only the most recent environmental shock to impact the Yellowstone River’s ecosystem.
Oil pipeline ruptures in 2011 and 2015 spilled 103,000 gallons of crude into the waterway. Gold mining applications filed on U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park prompted the Obama administration to issue a two-year ban on mineral development in the area.
All of this has refocused public attention on the Yellowstone River and its resources. In late April 2017 conservation advocacy groups hosted a two-day symposium on the Yellowstone in Livingston.
The goal of the event was to bring both governmental and private stakeholders together to consider mutual beneficial options for sharing the Yellowstone River’s resources. It was a positive departure from the finger-pointing that took place following the PKD outbreak.
“Its human nature to group up in little factions that have some kind of perspective and find faults with one another,” observed FWP Fisheries Manager Travis Horton at the outset of the symposium. “I am unfortunately seeing more and more of that and it’s very disheartening.”
The PKD outbreak immediately put the region’s recreational fishing industry and agricultural interests at odds over who was responsible for the fish kill. Many people suggested that irrigation draw-downs had multiplied drought conditions on the upper Yellowstone, directly contributing to the PKD fish die off.
But a comprehensive analysis of impacts to the Yellowstone River’s ecosystem completed by the Army Corp of Engineers in 2015 determined that irrigation in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston has had a negligible effect on the Yellowstone’s water resources.
“At Livingston, the effects of irrigation on the overall flow regime are imperceptible,” the report states.
Of greater impact has been the surge in construction of homes and summer retreats along the valley extending between Livingston and the park entrance at Gardiner.
For the most part, water usage in Montana is strictly regulated under the authority of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. One exception to that rule has been for groundwater wells that flow less than 35 gallons per minute. These “exempt wells” are primarily used for suburban housing developments and have proliferated in the Paradise Valley over the last 30 years.
“In a lot of cases, the urbanization and sprawl are putting more of a burden on our resources than the agricultural folks were,” Horton said.
State records show that 113,000 exempt wells currently exist in Montana, and unless the rules for drilling them is changed it is anticipated that another 78,000 could be drilled by 2020. While insignificant on an individual basis, the cumulative effect of close to 200,000 wells pumping millions of gallons of water from Montana aquifers would have a huge effect on the Yellowstone and the state’s other riverine systems.
“The number of exempt wells anticipated to be in existence 20 years from now is the equivalent of Canyon Ferry Reservoir’s entire volume of water being pulled out of the ground to the surface every year,” Horton said.
While agricultural use is not identified as a major stressor on the upper Yellowstone, further downstream the impact rises.
“At Livingston, the effects of irrigation on the overall flow regime are imperceptible,” the Corp of Engineer’s report states, “but by the mouth of the Clarks Fork, (near Laurel) the results indicate an approximate 23 percent reduction in the summer low flows.”
By the time it reaches North Dakota, irrigation drawdowns will have reduced the Yellowstone’s summer flows by about 40 percent. An even more profound impact can be attributed to the effect of water stored in Yellowtail Dam.
Built on the Bighorn River in the 1960s, this reservoir on the Crow Indian Reservation regulates the flow of water from the Yellowstone’s largest tributary. The containment of 1.38 million acre feet of water that had historically recharged the Yellowstone according to natural cycles of winter snowpack and spring runoff has had a profound effect on the lower Yellowstone.
“Immediately below the mouth of the Bighorn River, the 100-year flood magnitude on the Yellowstone River has dropped by 16 percent,” the Corp of Engineer’s report states. “The 10-year flood has been reduced by 19 percent, and the 2-year flood has dropped by 23 percent.”
In short, Yellowtail Dam has accomplished its intended purpose; to reduce flooding on the lower Yellowstone and provide water for irrigation. But in the process, it has degraded the natural cycles through which the river once reinvigorated the soils along its banks and the wildlife habitat contained within its side channels and islands.
Despite these challenges, the Yellowstone River retains a vibrant ecosystem. One of the conclusions reached at the Livingston symposium is that collaboration and common purpose among all of the Yellowstone’s stakeholders offer the best course to retain the river’s economic, environmental and recreational values.
“If you’re looking to Helena — the state legislature — to resolve these issues for us we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Pat Byroth, Montana Water Director for the conservation organization, Trout Unlimited. “The same can be said of Congress and the federal government. They’re not going to change things in the Yellowstone River for us, but if we take action as a group then the leaders in Helena and Congress will actually follow us.”