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Guest view: A culture of collaborative conservation

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Pedro Marques


As the smoke clears, rains fall and temperatures drop after a historically bad year for water in SW Montana, this is the time to take stock of what’s working, and who is working for water, and where we can put constructive energy to build resilience for both human and natural systems.

The bottom line for water in Montana is people are trying to make a living with the decks stacked against them. Water is a private property right tied to the use of the land to produce food we depend on. Most of our rivers have more rights than actual water, those rights go back a long way, and irrigators went through an expensive adjudication process to account for over-appropriated water. What that means is any number of irrigators could dry up our rivers without breaking a single law.

In 1988, the Big Hole River at Wisdom went dry for 32 days. In 2021, despite similar total snowpack and less overall precipitation, the river never went dry. The difference has been a culture of collaborative conservation and public-private partnerships that’s been nurtured for over 25 years. In ’88, it was every ranch for themselves, and many had excavators in the river, pushing gravels to get what water they could. This year, you didn’t see machines in the river in August — that’s a sign of shared sacrifice for the good of the resource.

In a time of stress, the urge to point fingers and hunker down into like-minded tribes is understandable, but not helpful (there’s enough of that on the news and social media). On hot August afternoons this year, fishers complained about water in ditches irrigating fields while ranchers pointed to anglers posting grip-and-grin selfies. Meanwhile in Butte, summer water consumption increased 22% from last year, with 60% of that volume (up to 8 million gallons per day) coming from the Big Hole River.

The real work of conservation is happening ranch to ranch and in connection with collaborative groups and partnerships at local levels, in the spaces where people break out of their comfort zones, put their livelihoods and priorities aside to search for common ground for the good of our water resources and wildlife. The reason conservation groups like the Big Hole Watershed Committee are important is because natural systems are complex and require expertise in multiple disciplines to find the sweet spot where real solutions can be found and projects can get done. Nobody has all the answers. How irrigators and land managers work together to make water work for all its beneficial uses is the difference.

This August, because of river-wide drought management and voluntary conservation, most ranchers operated at 20%-50% of the water they normally use, the bare minimum needed to not go broke. Similar sacrifices were made in recreation, whose dollars sustain our small businesses. Before mandatory “hoot owl” restrictions were placed on the Big Hole, many outfitters and locals agreed collectively to not fish the river past 2p.m, and limited how many clients they took on, making sacrifices for the greater good of the resource. In neither case was participation 100%, so there’s room for improvement.

If recreation leaves the landscape, our small towns suffer. If ranching leaves the landscape, so do cold water return flows and the tax base of rural counties. If development swoops in, mansions dot the river, and land gets broken up, pavement, septic tanks, riding lawnmowers, etc., soon follow and all of those scenarios degrade the health of the river, public access, as well as the collaborative spirit we’ve been nurturing for over two decades. So let’s not pick sides, let’s make improvements on the ground where we can. Let’s manage our forests- every mid-sized conifer creeping down our hillsides uses up to 18 gallons of water per day that leaves the watershed. Every incised channel not spilling over its banks is a missed opportunity to recharge groundwater. Let’s get irrigators measuring devices and updated infrastructure, and let’s bring non-participants into the culture of cooperation that’s working.

It’s all connected, we’re in it together, so if you want to see solutions, show up and support your local watershed group. For the Big Hole, visit our Conservation Fund:

Pedro Marques is the Executive Director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a collaborative conservation organization formed 26 years ago to find common ground on water management issues and implement solutions that benefit all water users.


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