In drought-parched Montana, where every drop of water counts, 15 million gallons per day go a long way. The Montana Water Trust (MWT) signed seven new water right leases in April to increase streamflows in Western Montana, bringing the number of contracts to 13, for a total of 15 million gallons per day that will stay in area streams.
Executive Director John Ferguson, who founded the nonprofit Missoula group in 2001, says improved streamflows benefit both fish habitat and water right holders who would otherwise remove water from the streams or risk losing their rights: the epitome of a win-win situation. And as word about their work gets out, business is picking up: half of the total contracts were signed this year and “this is just scratching the service. The phone’s ringing off the hook,” Ferguson says.
In 1995, the Legislature made it legal for landowners to use their water rights to improve instream flow without losing their claim to the water, says Brianna Randall, MWT’s development associate. And this session the Legislature renewed a leasing program that allows groups like MWT to provide incentives to landowners in return for keeping their water where the fish can use it instead of using it for irrigation. While both Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Trout Unlimited have leasing programs, MWT is the only group in the state dedicated solely to the cause—and with more than 4,000 miles of Montana streams classified as dewatered, there’s plenty of potential for growth.
The 500-acre Fire Creek Ranch in the Ninemile signed a one-year lease agreement with MWT this year, contributing 1.75 cubic feet per second to its small, thirsty tributary of Ninemile Creek.
“In this time of drought, we feel better about not pulling so much water out,” says Fire Creek Ranch Manager Nancy Condit.
Ferguson says small commitments like Fire Creek’s can make all the difference.
“We got ourselves into this dewatered situation one water right at a time, and it’s gonna need to be fixed one right at a time,” he says.