False Casts and Flat Tires added more images yesterday on the story they broke a few days back on some man-made channeling work that was diverting water to the head gate of the infamous Mitchell slough. Predictably, a fairly big uproar has ensued and it has become an over night “who done it”, probably more so given it’s proximity to one of the most contentious stream access battlegrounds in recent memory. While reading blog posts, comments and emails (some solicited) from several people; conservation group leaders, guides, and every day fishing folk it got me thinking about our role as watch dogs of our streams and rivers and protecting our access rights.
There’s nothing natural about putting a bulldozer, a track hoe, or an army of pick and shovels in a stream bed, making alterations and diverting water from one place to another. I don’t care what the studies show, anyone says, who mitigates, oversees the permits or whatever; that’s going to have an impact. What is that impact worth, what is gained and what is lost? Who benefits, who does not? Whose water is it and who decides how it’s divided among potential users? My guess is that I am not the only one thinking along these lines and they appear to be the heart of this particular issue.
A lot of vitriol over what we’re seeing here is being directed at the landowners and ranchers with property associated with the slough. Some argue that diverting most of the water into the slough puts the natural channel habitat at risk while others say that adding that water to the slough creates a staging area for brown trout that will eventually end up in the river. My personal opinion here is that there’s no point in getting into another pissing contest with the landowners on Mitchell slough and opening up another round of negative dialog, the respective mindsets are already in place; save your bullets for another gunfight. We won the access battle this time- they lost. What they didn’t lose here was the water. They have the water rights, Montana water law and 301 permits to their favor in spades. Montana water law gives certain priority to stock growers and irrigation users. In areas where these interests prevail they also have a lot of influence in how conservation districts handle 301 permits (or Corp of Engineer 404 applications) related to their perceived needs.
301 permits are an application process. Someone applies for permission to do something, the conservation district and a representative from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) do an onsite review. MFWP makes their recommendations to the conservation district and the conservation district makes the final determination based on its findings (with or without MFWP blessings) and the permit moves forward based on the conservation districts decision. Conservation districts have open forum meetings; meaning anyone can attend and voice their opinions on permits. Additionally, MTWP representatives can discuss issues dealing with permits. If the parties involved cannot come to agreement on the permit requirements there is arbitration which, from what I hear, is rarely necessary. Do you see where I’m headed here?
“We have met the enemy, and he is us”. Ok, so that’s quotes been beat to death but like it or not, I think it applies. Changing Montana water law and the attitudes behind them is unlikely and may not even be necessary because the open forum instituted in the 301 permit process gives everyone a voice in the matter- if they choose to use it. It’s not enough to have organized entities like Trout Unlimited represent us, we can’t hide behind them and let them do our dirty work. While they are a great organization they can easily be portrayed as having an “agenda”. One voice is an opinion, many voices; a consensus. When you have a big enough consensus, you get the decision you want. Don’t believe me? Look at the pictures at False Casts and Flat Tires or the old Supreme Court chambers in the Montana Capitol during the last battle over stream access.
Update 2/11/2012: I pulled this contact information from a comment by Sherry Myers at False Casts and Flat Tires. She has made a couple good comment posts there.
Bitteroot Conservation District Website- Stay current and go to meetings and by all means, speak up!
Chris Clancy, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (the districts FWP field person) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailing address: Chris Clancy, FWP, 1801 N 1st St. Hamilton, MT 59840