Historic opportunity to keep our rivers flowing and healthy
The Gallatin River (Photo by Diane Renkin of the National Park Service, public domain via Flickr).
Montana doesn’t often have a budget surplus — let alone billions of dollars that resulted from the enormous influx of federal funds during the pandemic and massive new federal infrastructure funding. But thanks to that surplus, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the upcoming legislative session have a historic opportunity to provide significant, desperately-needed, and permanent relief for Montana’s beleaguered rivers as well as the fisheries, wildlife, towns and industries that rely on them.
For decades rivers like the famed Big Hole have suffered chronic dewatering, primarily due to irrigation made possible by state-issued but over-appropriated water rights. In short, the state has issued more water rights than there is water in the river.
This is no idle threat, nor is it in any way frivolous. Montana holds the last population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Lower 48 states. Estimates put their population at about 200 fish, desperately hanging on in what’s left of the chronically dewatered Upper Big Hole River.
Since the Montana Constitution specifically states that “all existing rights to the use of any waters for any useful or beneficial purpose are hereby recognized and confirmed” water rights are considered property rights — and may not be “taken” by the government.
The surplus provides a rare and historic opportunity to establish a billion-dollar Instream Flow Trust Fund that, much like the Permanent Coal Tax Trust Fund, would provide on-going interest earnings in perpetuity. That revenue can then be invested in purchasing water rights to keep our rivers flowing, our native species from going extinct, and all without raising a dime in new taxes.
Those who may think it’s not worth it merely to save some “little fishies” should consider that pollution discharge permits issued for development, industry, and municipalities are based on certain levels of instream flows for dilution. While dilution is not “the solution to pollution,” without it you wind up with situations like the tragic eutrophic destruction of the once-pristine Gallatin River by Big Sky area sewage discharges — and the discharges by municipalities dwarf those from Big Sky.
George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest running columnist.
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