We Are Toast: Montana’s Extreme Drought

Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

One of Governor Ted Schwinden’s favorite excuses for his failure to prepare Montana for the state’s disastrous droughts in the 80s was: “Montana is a ‘next year’ state.” It means that even though our rivers dried up, fish died, crops withered, and as he infamously put it, “the whole damn state’s on fire,” we should all hope “next year” will be better. Well, it’s ‘next year’ following last year’s severe drought and guess what, it’s not better, it’s much, much worse — and Republican Governor Gianforte is no more prepared for it than was his Democrat predecessor 37 years ago.

Having chaired the Governor’s Drought Task Force back in the 80s and early 90s, it’s grim business to hear the damage reports come in. River and reservoir levels dropping, wells going dry, crops desiccated, wildlife driven onto the last remaining green fields, and destruction of dewatered aquatic ecosystems.

Extreme drought’s effects are widespread, as are the economic and environmental damages. When there’s minimal snowpack and little precipitation the entire cycle of use and recharge is disrupted. The “use” goes on— irrigators continue to dewater rivers, even going so far as to bulldoze stream beds into their own diversion dams to funnel what’s left of our world-famous trout streams into inefficient, unlined ditches. The fish, of course, follow the water; they have no choice. And when the rivers are finally so low there’s no more water for diversion, those fish die in the ditches.

The ugly result is society and the state wind up pitting one economic sector against another as the competition for scarce water grows more dire day by day. For those who make their living on the river, it’s the same old story — sorry, but our rivers are over-appropriated and by law the irrigators have legal rights to their diversions. When it comes to trout versus alfalfa, the alfalfa always wins — even if there’s not enough water to bring in more than one cutting.

Right now one small example from that tale of woe is playing out on the Smith River that saw its “float season” shut down in early June last year and will likely see this season go by without enough water to float. Despite being the state’s only “permit required” river — and thousands of people across the state and nation pay to apply for permits to fish and float annually — we’re looking at another “no float” year.

As a Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman said last year: “Our normal recommendations for suitable river levels for floating are 350 cfs (cubic feet per second) for drift boats, 250 cfs for rafts, and 150 cfs for canoes and kayaks.” As per the USGS “current conditions” streamflow report, the river is running at 63 cfs at the top and 115 at the Eden Bridge take out, 59 miles downstream.

Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly — virtually all of Montana’s rivers are running from one-third to one-half long-term average flows — and it’s nearly two months until summer. Municipalities are already asking residents to cut back on water, even though non-ag water use accounts for less than 4% of Montana’s water consumption. As the Fairfield fire chief recently told reporters: “…if they want to be able to brush their teeth and flush the toilet, they better not be running it on their yards.”

Schwinden often complained that he “couldn’t make it rain.” Neither can Governor Gianforte. And given the lack of governmental preparation all these years later, it looks like Montanans are on their own again in extreme drought — as are our rivers, forests, fish, wildlife, and businesses.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.