Montana water summit: Local cooperation the key to dealing with water shortages

Posted at 4:37 PM, Mar 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-01 18:37:33-05

State Rep. Walt Sales says water is the lifeblood of farms and ranches like his in the booming Gallatin Valley – but that ag operators here have been willing to share the resource, to foster cooperative action when water shortages occur.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve not seen (the river) go dry, even though the water rights designate that they could dry that up,” he told MTN News in an interview this week. “Those handful of irrigators, at that time of year, will leave enough flow in that river.”

Sales and others say as water becomes an ever-more precious resource in Montana, cooperative local agreements may be the key to dealing with drought and water shortages.

That approach also will be front-and-center at the first Montana Water Summit, scheduled next week in Helena.

“If you haven’t done it, if you haven’t started having these discussions, you need to start doing it, because you don’t want to wait for a crisis to occur,” says Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who chairs the governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee.

Cooney is a keynote speaker at the summit, which has sold out its 300 participant slots. The two-day summit begins next Tuesday at the Radisson Colonial Hotel.

Cooney says the summit is meant to encourage water-users in local communities to get together and plan how they’ll handle water shortages – which he says are inevitable, given climate change and pressure from urban and suburban development.

“Even if we have a great snowpack, even if it looks like it’s going to melt off when we want it to, we still need to have these conversations,” he told MTN News. “Because we will have drought. It’s not a matter of if we will – it’s when the drought will come.”

Cooney points to Gallatin County – the fastest-growing county in the state – as an example of how most major water-users, from agriculture to municipalities, are talking to one another to plan how to allocate water when supplies get short.

Sales, who ranches and farms south of Manhattan, says Gallatin Valley irrigators banded together more than a decade ago, concerned about water-rights applications from the exclusive Yellowstone Club at Big Sky.

Most local irrigators hold water rights on area rivers, and worried that increased urban and suburban growth in the valley and surrounding area could start squeezing the available supply, he says.

“That’s our livelihood,” he says. “Without that water, I wouldn’t be passing this ranch on to a fifth generation. And they’re banking on that water providing for them also.”

But what started out as a protective move has morphed into a more cooperative, pro-active venture, as irrigators work with other water-users to make sure there’s enough for everyone, he says.

“I think we’re at the point where, with the cities, the county and then the agriculture and the recreation side, that we’re willing to listen to one another and start understanding each other’s needs better, and working on how do we make it fit,” Sales says.

Taking a pro-active approach is the way to go, Sales says, before things get out of hand and people start fighting over water – and he’s hopeful that message will be heard and heeded at the water summit next week.

“We’re all in this valley together,” he says. “It’s been a bit of a challenge, but I think we’ve learned a lot, and can share that with other growth areas in the state.”