Retaining water

Who will pay to maintain the Bitterroot’s storage dams?


Even good ideas need regular maintenance if they’re to remain good. Without it, one generation’s innovation becomes the next generation’s headache.

More than a century ago, Hamilton’s west-side farmers came up with a good plan for irrigating their crops in a virtual desert. Looking westward to what would eventually become the Bitterroot National Forest and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, they saw torrents of usable water rushing out of the mountains, down to the river below and out of the valley. The obvious solution was to dam the creeks and store the water for late summer, when the weather turns hot and dry and the rains of autumn are still months away.

Using primitive hand tools, mules, and in one case, railroad cars on temporary tracks, farmers constructed some 42 storage dams miles from the valley floor up in the canyons and creeks of the Bitterroot Range.

The dams served the farmers well, enabling them to raise an abundance of timothy, clover, hay, grain and apples in a land that receives only about 11 inches of precipitation annually.

The dams, with their systems of hand-dug and leaky ditches, also changed the ecosystem of the valley’s arid west side. Where it would naturally be brown and dry, the leaking ditches turned the land green and lush with ferns and cottonwoods. It’s an ecosystem that Bitterrooters, both native and newcomer, accept as natural.

What’s harder for some landowners to accept is the responsibility for maintenance that goes along with that hundred-year-old reservoir-and-ditch system, especially when those landowners are relative newcomers who have little or no idea where their water comes from.

The oldest irrigation district in the state is the Canyon Creek district, which receives its water from a 111-year-old reservoir about six miles west of Hamilton. This fall, the Canyon Creek irrigation district commissioners made a decision to rehabilitate the aged dam over the next three years, with the costs being passed on to the landowners who benefit. The question is: Just who benefits? It’s a question that will need to be answered by the courts.

Earlier this month, about the time property tax statements were being delivered, landowners who live in the Canyon Creek irrigation district learned that the planned rehabilitation of the Canyon Creek dam, and the smaller Wyant dam above it, boosted their tax assessment from $4.50 an acre to nearly $90 an acre.

When landowners met with their district commissioners to discuss the tax increase there was hell to pay, because not everyone in the district actually receives water from Canyon Creek. Some do, but prefer to irrigate their small land holdings from wells. The district is now petitioning the court to determine which landowners are in the district, which are out, and who must pay the bill.

The court was last petitioned in this manner back in 1931. Since then, land has been subdivided into ever-smaller parcels, irrigation ditches have been obliterated, some landowners have been taxed for irrigation water, some have not, and now no one, not even the district commissioners, knows who gets water and who doesn’t.

Ren Cleveland is a Canyon Creek commissioner. He still lives on the land where he was born 70 years ago. As a farmer, son and grandson of farmers, Cleveland has a unique perspective on the changes to irrigated farmland wrought by increasing suburbanization.

“In the last 100 years, things have changed,“ he says. “There’s been so many subdivisions of land.”

Over the decades life has gotten considerably softer here. These days, the “suburban types,” as Cleveland calls them, have no intention of repairing the dam or maintaining the six miles of irrigation ditch that lead from the reservoir-fed creek to the developed land below. “And the people who sold them the land didn’t maintain it either,” he says. “I’ve got neighbors who don’t know where the headgate is, and don’t want to know.” But not wanting to cast blame solely on the newcomers, Cleveland also implicates his own ancestors. “My parents and grandparents are probably just as negligent as anyone else.”

What the current landowners have inherited is decades of neglect. Though many of them may not understand the value of keeping stored water, simply removing the dam is no solution, says Dick Weber, an attorney hired by the Canyon Creek irrigation district to sort out the issue. Breaching, or removing, the dam would still cost landowners nearly $1 million, he says. The U.S. Forest Service, which approves the operation and maintenance plans that the dam owners devise, could require what Weber calls an “environmentally perfect” removal, costing even more money.

To further complicate the issue, those farmers of days past also built a smaller dam—Wyant dam—above the Canyon Creek reservoir. It too must be either removed or rebuilt. The best option, says Weber, is to remove the smaller dam and raise and rehabilitate the Canyon Creek reservoir to store the increased flow. But even with a state grant of $200,000, landowners will be stuck with a costly repair bill, perhaps as much as a half million dollars.

Still, Cleveland believes the dam must be rehabilitated. If it’s removed, he says, it will never be rebuilt since it’s in a wilderness area. The Wilderness Act, passed decades after the dam was built, would never allow the dam to be rebuilt.

The court will eventually sort out the ownership issue. But however final, a court decision will only leave some people grumbling about the bill. What it won’t do is convey the importance of storing water for dry times, nor will it make people understand that leaking irrigation ditches have completely changed the ecosystem.

“The value, I think, is the build up ... of the ecosystem,” says Cleveland. “People look at it and say ‘If you shut the water off it’ll stay that way.’ Well, it won’t. Eleven inches of rainfall in this country is a desert.”

Despite the high cost of rehabilitation, it’s a matter of pay now or pay more later, says Cleveland. “[We] got caught between a rock and a hard spot.”


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