Hot Water in the Headwaters

Boulder River near McLeod, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It’s not even August and Montana’s world-famous trout streams are being shut down due to low flows and high water temperatures — so high they severely stress or kill fish that rely on enough cold, clean water to survive. Given these are the headwater streams and rivers pouring off the snow-capped mountains of the Continental Divide, Montana is in hot water again — and that’s anything but good.
The list of rivers now being limited to “hoot owl” restrictions is long and growing quickly. Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks posts those closures and restrictions online.

The Beaverhead, Big Hole, Bitterroot, Jefferson, Lower Madison, Ruby, and Sun Rivers are all too hot and too low to sustain trout. And that says nothing about the “species of concern” such as the last fluvial Arctic grayling in the Lower 48, quickly disappearing in the dewatered Upper Big Hole and the westslope cutthroat that should have been given Endangered Species Act protections, but were denied that by politically-directed agencies.

Moreover, we are now facing what FWP calls “historic low flows” in northwest Montana, a part of the state that shouldn’t experience those conditions given it’s on the “wet” west side of the divide. Here’s what the agency says:

The Flathead River basin is experiencing severe drought conditions due to below-average winter snowpack, early runoff, and above-average hot, dry summer conditions. Flows in the North, South, and Middle forks of the Flathead River are roughly one-third of average for this time of year. Water temperatures are already hitting stressful levels for trout, particularly westslope cutthroat and bull trout…fisheries biologists are most concerned about heat-induced stress in Montana’s wild trout populations in the following rivers and adjacent tributaries: North Fork Flathead River, Middle Fork Flathead River, South Fork Flathead River, Mainstem Flathead River upstream of Old Steel Bridge in Evergreen, Swan River, Thompson River.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Yet, despite a flood of concern over the disappearing wild trout fishery in the Big Hole River, the state continues its dereliction of duty to its public trust responsibilities by delegating that responsibility to the Big Hole Watershed Committee — which has now failed to maintain adequate flows for nearly 30 years. The result? The on-going drying and dying of an iconic Montana trout stream.

While all this is very bad news for Montana, the state’s inability to maintain our headwaters rivers are now cascading downstream. As recently reported in the Hot Water Report 2023,“The once-abundant anadromous fish populations of the Columbia-Snake River Basin are on the brink of extinction. These cold-water fish begin to suffer harmful effects when water temperatures exceed 68° Fahrenheit. This July marked the first time in 2023 the lower Snake and Columbia river reservoirs surpassed the 68°F ‘harm’ threshold for salmon and steelhead, and now salmon are migrating through dangerous and lethal water temperatures.”

That’s no surprise when the water coming from Montana is 73 degrees or warmer by the time it hits the Columbia. And like so much these days, the dereliction of duty by our politicians is stacking up in ever-more destructive outcomes over larger areas of concern.

At some point in the not too distant future, it will be too late for corrective actions. The damage, as on the Big Hole and now the Columbia, is on-going. And when you consider Montana’s majestic headwater rivers are now too low and too hot for wild trout and salmon — it may well be too late already.

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