By Michael Howell
As water levels began to plummet and water temperatures began to rise in the Bitterroot River, action was taken at Painted Rocks Reservoir to release 26 cubic feet per second (cfs) of stored water in mid-July. The water is owned by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and is released to enhance in-stream flows for fisheries in the Bitterroot River. FWP owns a total of 15,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir. The Painted Rocks Water Users Association owns another 10,000 acre-feet which it calls on for irrigation purposes.
The amount of water being released for in-stream flows was ramped up another 57 cfs to a total of 83 cfs on July 21. This was increased to a total of 100 cfs on July 31. The irrigators also began drawing on their water and 50 cfs was released to them on July 31.
“As it gets drier we will see these withdrawals going up,” said DNRC Water Resources Specialist Larry Schock. He said that in August the releases will generally top out at 150 cfs each for irrigation and for in-stream flows. The total, 300 cfs, is about 600 acre-feet of water per day.
As of July 31, FWP had used 2,425 acre-feet of their 15,000 acre-feet allotment. At the current rate of 100 cfs they would have 63 days of water remaining.
At the current rate of withdrawal of 50 cfs, the irrigators would have 101 days remaining.
“Right now we are looking good,” said Schock. “We’ve got over 22,000 acre-feet of contract water in the reservoir.”
Bitterroot Water Commissioner Al Pernichele was in agreement.
“We still have quite a bit of water,” said Pernichele. “Of course, it depends on the weather. But I’m optimistic.” He said with some sensible irrigation practices the water could last into September.
Natural inflows to the reservoir have decreased to 83.2 cfs on July 31, which is a reduction of 6.2 cfs over five days.
In the meantime, water levels in the river itself have dropped to around 200 cfs at Bell Crossing, the stretch of the river most vulnerable to dewatering. FWP tries to maintain at least 400 cfs flowing at a minimum but simply can’t maintain it during really low flows.
As water levels decreased, water temperatures went up and after three consecutive days of pushing the temperature limits set by FWP, “Hoot-Owl Restrictions” were invoked on the Bitterroot River on July 25. The restrictions prohibit fishing between 2 p.m. and 12 Midnight and apply to the main stem of the river but not to the East and West Forks. These restrictions are still in effect.
Lake Como water is also holding up well, according to Bitter Root Irrigation District manager John Crowley.
“We are probably doing the best of the bunch,” he said, referring to the various ditch companies in the valley. Crowley said the inflows to the lake held up better than some other lakes and reservoirs in the valley and the river itself. He said the situation is different for some lakes on the eastside, like Burnt Fork Lake. He said BRID has a “high water” right for water out of Burnt Fork Creek, but there was not enough water to exercise the right this year.
“We are lucky that we really don’t need it this year,” said Crowley. He said there was enough water coming from the lake to last until Labor Day or a little beyond.
“Depending on the weather,” he said. As does everyone when it comes to irrigation flows.
Hans McPherson, Manager of the Supply Ditch which takes water directly from the Bitterroot River north of Corvallis, said water flows were holding up well.
“We’re going to be O.K.,” he said. “But people using the little creeks for irrigation may be hurting.” He said the recent little bit of rain we got has lifted people’s spirits.
Rhonda King of Daly Ditches confirmed that stream flows on the eastside are running low. The company serves seven ditches with water out of Skalkaho Creek and she is anticipating that those ditches will be shut down by mid-August or perhaps the third week of August. Flows from the Bitterroot River into the Hedge and Republican Ditches are anticipated to last through the season. However, she said, there may be cutbacks in flow amounts during that period. She said these cutbacks cannot be anticipated and are controlled by the Bitterroot River Water Commissioner.
Burnt Fork Water Commissioner Dan Claggett said that Burnt Fork Lake would be shut down in a week or ten days.
“We’re running short of water,” said Claggett. He said the lake isn’t usually opened up so early and this year it was four and half feet below full when it was opened.
“We just didn’t get enough snow melt,” he said.