Mont. State Water Plan finalized | TSLN.com

Mont. State Water Plan finalized

Laura Nelson
for Tri-State Livestock News

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The blueprint intended to guide water management in Montana for the next 20 years was presented to the 2015 Montana Legislature in January.

The Montana State Water Plan is a guiding document commissioned by the 2013 Legislature to create a vision for water management in the next 20 years, Michael Downey said. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation water resource planner said the executive branch document does not require legislative approval, nor does it contain binding policy. In years to come, however, the DNRC will use the plan to guide policy and request legislative action based on its contents.

For agricultural users, irrigation and conservation districts, the State Water Plan will provide a roadmap to align local project and funding proposals with established state and regional goals.

"For water users across the state, as they seek funding to complete their priorities, they can look at the state water plan, and I hope it's leveraged to show how these priorities are aligned with your projects," Downey said.

That may include irrigation rehabilitation projects, floodplain planning efforts or channel migration mitigation, he said. Large rivers in the state like the Yellowstone and the Musselshell have seen dramatic channel migrations for thousands of years – "but if we can share a better idea of where they've been and where they may be headed, that can benefit those water users."

Not surprisingly, people want more information about water, Downey said. "They want more information and better data available for the public and for agencies."

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The plan both quantifies current consumptive and non-consumptive water use in the state and offers recommendations for the management of future water supply and demand, administration, information gathering, ecological and environmental health and further water planning.

"Basically, the goal was to be better able to serve the [water] needs of a growing population," Jan Lengel said. The DNRC water resource staff operations manager said one of the key highlights of the document to agricultural users includes plans to finalize the adjudication process of pre-1973 water rights.

"We also wanted to look at ways to better manager real-time water use," he said. "We wanted to protect senior water rights." The plan also focused on ways to anticipate and endure drought or other shortage conditions.

Regional plans come first

The first thing the DNRC did when charged with developing the updated Water Plan, Langel said, was to split the state into four regional Basin Advisory Councils (BACs) to create the regional plans that would later layer in to the state plan.

The Clark Fork/Kootenai Task Force, Upper Missouri Basin Advisory Council, Lower Missouri Basic Advisory Council and Yellowstone Basin Advisory Council each consisted of 20 individuals selected to represent what the DNRC called "the most diverse group of water users and interests ever brought together by the state of Montana."

Throughout the 18-month process, the BACs met, set priorities, negotiations recommendations, sought council from expert opinions and hosted series of public meetings across the state. Barb Beck, of Beck Consulting, facilitated the Yellowstone BACs meetings and negotiation process.

Each of the four regional plans serve as detailed, stand-alone documents for guiding the development and management of the corresponding basins' water resources. The State Water Plan, however, provides a high-level overview of the state's water resources and lays out a path for managing those resources over the next 20 years. The basin plans are available to view at http://www.dnrc.mt/gov/mwsi.

"It's noteworthy that when the advisory councils were put together, there was an effort to have a representative from each of the stakeholder groups," Beck said. "The underlying bond was that people agreed to serve because they care deeply about water in Montana and water management. The common concern was—people are worried about there being enough water."

Finding common denominators

One common denominator heard clearly throughout each basin was support for completion of the state's adjudication process, Downey said.

"The recognition across the state was that this is a process we need to finish. We need the funding and the ability to just get it done," he said.

Montana began the process of adjudicating pre-1973 water rights a decade ago. Senior water claims were initially filed in 1982, and the Water Adjudication Bureau has been working to provide a summary report on each of the basins in the state. That includes more than 57,000 claims, Langel noted.

"It's been a long process and we are getting a lot closer," Downey said. The State Water Plan includes a summary of the adjudication process and provides maps and details to show the status of each basin.

Another common priority that showed through from each basin was a focus on ecological health and the environment, he said.

"That's really in the context of trying to promote natural storage and the idea that the best way to keep water in Montana is to let that sponge that is our rivers and riparian areas retain more water on the landscape," Downey said.

The recognition that while water storage is a high priority for all water users, "the era of big dams is probably over," he said, simply because there isn't the state, local or federal money available anymore to support building that kind of infrastructure.

"So the next best way to promote storage is through better land use," he said.

Montana's current water use

To understand how to manage water in the future, Langel said, they first had to quantify the state's current use.

According to the Water Plan's inventory, water use in Montana totals about 84 million acre-feet annually. The lion's share of that use goes to hydroelectric power – about 72 million acre-feet per year, or 86 percent of the state's total use.

Agriculture diverts approximately 10.4 million acre-feet each year – that makes up 12.4 percent of total use – but most of that is considered non-consumptive, which means the water is recovered eventually though surface and groundwater return flows. The inventory estimated 2.4 million acre-feet of that is actually consumed by agriculture uses. Municipal, industrial, stock and domestic consumption makes up just 0.5 percent of the total water use each year.

With each of those uses in mind, representatives from each BAC brought forth plans and ideas to create the state documents. The 2015 Montana State Water Plan contains 68 recommendations intended to guide state water policy and management over the near, intermediate and long-term future.

"The planning process also benefited from the hundreds of Montanans who took the time to provide the BACs and the DNRC with comments on what they feel are the key water related issues facing Montana and how we, as a state, can address them together," John Tubbs, Montana' DNRC director, wrote in the executive summary. "As a result, the recommendations offered in the State Water Plan reflect the collective work and ideas of a broad range of water users from across the state."

The plan notes that each recommendation is subject to "the existing institutional and legal framework for water use in Montana as provided for by the Montana Constitution, prior appropriation doctrine, and Montana Water Use Act. Full implementation of some recommendations may require the Legislature to amend the Montana Water Use Act."

The state's water plan was last updated in 1987 and was effective through 2003.

Major findings and key recommendations from the State Water Plan are grouped into five categories. Here are the bullet points of the state recommendations:

Water Supply and Demand: support water use efficiency and water conservation; improve and expand efforts to quantify surface water supplies and availability; increase flexibility to manage available water supplies through storage and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure; integrate natural storage to benefit water supplies and ecosystems; support and expand existing drought preparedness and planning efforts.

Water use administration: Complete an accurate and enforceable water rights adjudication; enforce against illegal water use; provide sufficient information, and legal and administrative capacity to minimize adverse effects during times of water scarcity; analyze additional opportunities and challenges for using water marketing, mitigation, and banking as tools for meeting new demands; complete all outstanding tribal and federal compacts and work closely with federal partners to better manage federal water projects.

Water information: Support improvements to the Montana Water Information System; inventory of consumptive and non-consumptive uses; monitor water supply and distribution; improve and expand efforts to quantify groundwater supplies and availability; improve conjunctive management of surface water and ground water.

Ecological health and environment: Provide sufficient protection for instream flows within the prior appropriation framework to maintain aquatic and riparian systems; support proactive, coordinated efforts to reduce invasive species in Montana.

Collaborative water planning and coordination: Expand support for basin and community based watershed planning; encourage collaboration, coordination, and communication across local, state and federal agencies and tribal governments; develop a plan to deliver water related training, education and outreach.