How Drought and Growth Threaten the Waters of the Northern Rockies

The news is full of stories about bodies, sunken vessels and trash being revealed by sinking water levels in Lake Mead. The crisis in the Colorado River Basin is a cautionary tale for the headwater states of the Northern Rockies, which send water to three oceans.

The Northern Rockies could be pressured to send more water downstream. Most of Montana’s Paradise Valley was once proposed to be inundated as was the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. “Fly-over region” has less political power than more populous downstream states with larger Congressional delegations.

The government spends millions on studies while avoiding decisive action. In Utah, ten million to study why the isolated Great Salt Lake is turning into a puddle. Hundreds of millions to figure out how to stop the Lake Mead and Powell reservoirs from becoming dead pools. The answers are clear. Forty million people rely on the Colorado system along with 10 million cows and there isn’t enough water to go around. Yet states and cities promote more growth. The water subsidy required would put other areas of the country at risk of more impoundments, mega-pipelines and shipments of water. Action is needed now to protect our water at its source as part of an interconnected ecological system.

Voluntary measures are admirable but aren’t enough and federal agencies have authority they aren’t using. The Bureau of Reclamation can force downstream states to make cuts in water use but it hasn’t. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service control livestock grazing on the vast public lands of the West but have taken no steps to decrease it.

Nearly 30 million cattle are grazed on Western public lands. A report published in Environmental Management found these cattle emit 12.4 million metric tons of CO2 annually representing more than $500 million in annual social carbon costs. This is 26 times the amount the agencies take in from grazing leases. These annual costs do not include impacts to ecosystems, biological diversity and native species from damaged riparian areas and dewatered streams. Reducing the livestock footprint in arid regions makes economic and biological sense and the government should retire expiring grazing leases on public lands and buy out willing sellers.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects migratory fish including salmon, cutthroat and bull trout and the free-flowing rivers they depend on by prohibiting dam construction and development within stream corridors. The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is before the U.S. Senate (S. 2254). Focused on the Yellowstone region it is a step in the right direction and should be passed by Congress. But the work doesn’t end there. Hundreds of miles of eligible streams are located throughout the Northern Rockies and also deserve protection as Wild and Scenic Rivers as per The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (H.R. 1755, S. 1276). This can also happen through revisions to National Forest Plans where the Forest Service makes recommendations to Congress.

Additional measures include instream flows for the beneficial uses of native fish and riparian ecosystems. Logging should be prohibited within riparian corridors where shade is paramount in limiting increased stream temperatures that threaten the existence of native fish. Mature forests in headwater areas help buffer climate change impacts by keeping airsheds cooler, sequestering carbon and retaining snowpack longer which extends the period of Spring runoff. Most headwaters are located in roadless areas which need permanent protection.

The age of building impoundments to support unrealistic growth must end. Dams have decimated populations of native fish and complicated recovery of migratory salmon and bull trout protected by the Endangered Species Act. We can avoid further losses by taking action now to protect our headwaters while also protecting a large part of our economic base.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.