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Water’s For Fightin’

Every year about this time the mountains start to green up, wildflowers begin to bloom and we get a rosy report on how much water will be available for summer irrigation. Each year, the Governor’s Drought Advisory Committee is required to release THE GOVERNOR’S REPORT on THE POTENTIAL FOR DROUGHT IN MONTANA. This years report echos last year. Montana is slowly recovering from a decade-long drought. Reservoirs are mostly full, soil moisture is adequate and river forecasts are coming in at close to 100% for the summer. This is good news. Water supplies are close to what they should be, a far cry from what we have heard for lo these many years. Only Glacier County remains in severe condition. I don’t mean to sound like ever the pessimist, but as, Jesse Aber, water resources planner for DNRC points out in the Flathead Beacon“coming out of drought is like going into drought: It doesn’t happen all at once. Recovery is happening in fits and starts. There’s always a chance that we can see drought-like conditions.” What comes around, goes around.

When we start getting back to near normal river flows there is a tendency to think that we have more water. More water that can be allocated for new uses. Most basins in Montana are already over-allocated, but any increase seems to bring calls for more  appropriations. Even though drought conditions have eased somewhat, much of the state remains in an “abnormally dry” condition. When we begin to be slightly more flush with water, we feel rich, we seem to forget the drier times and we get more free with our resources.

pamida2Much of the call on our finite water supplies will come from proposed energy development. Process such as hydraulic fracturing, coal development and methane production, use billions of gallons of water, water that Montana, and other dry western states, just don’t have to spare in times of drought. In a recent example, plans are being made for water from the Yampa River in northeastern Colorado. The Yampa is the last large free-flowing river in the Colorado basin. The Yampa is not a large river by national standards, but it is a very important tributary to the Colorado system. It contains miles of rare habitat, four endangered fish species, it is a world-class whitewater rafting destination and flows through Dinosaur National Monument.

The Yampa has the bad fortune to flow through the middle of the nation’s largest oil shale deposits. Shell Oil has applied for a 15 billion gallon water right do divert water to a proposed 45,000 acre-foot reservoir to service the oil shale industry. The proposed diversion is about 8 percent of the April-June flow of the river. Toxic chemicals would be addeded to the billions of gallons of water and be injected into the oil shale under exterme pressure to fracture the rock and recover the oil. At the same time, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is proposing the Yampa River Diversion Project to divert 20% of the wild river’s flow from Maybell, some 250 miles under the Rocky Mountains to water-hungry Denver and other front range cities.

There seems to be something about the last wild, free-flowing river in millions of square miles that brings out the greed in developers. In Montana we are fortunate to have many miles of, as yet, free-flowing and lightly managed rivers. Sadly, we also have large untapped energy resources that will require billions and billions of gallons of our precious water to develop. What is happening in Colorado and in Wyoming will move north and we will be called on to sacrifice our clean, wild rivers to a power-hungry population. Let’s hope we will not do so quietly. “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.”

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