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Water Supply Plan must take fire impact into account

By Pat Connell, State Representative, HD 87

The DNRC is currently responding to a Legislative directive to produce an updated Water Supply Plan for Montana. I want to highlight a simple, but extremely important fact that seemed at least to be downplayed and possibly overlooked from what I heard at the recent Montana Watershed Coordination Council meeting: the headwaters. Downstream in our state, the various Conservation Districts are doing yeoman work, which I applaud, along with all Montana irrigators and water users. They understand the critical importance of available water for their use during the critical later summer and early fall seasons. We can, and should support their effort to investigate every possible avenue open to us for the effective conservation and use of water, from improved delivery systems, to more effective irrigation.

The simple fact is that our Conservation Districts, and their irrigators, can only respond to that volume of water entering into their systems. Montana, water conservationists, and regulators are missing the boat if they do not recognize and address the primary fact that effectively all water in Montana stems from headwaters whose landbase is managed by the federal government. The management decisions of the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management & US Park Service are having, and will continue to have, a dramatic impact on water volume, quality and timing of flow. This fact requires adequate consideration in the Plan. Simply put, Montana doesn’t need even the current volume of early spring runoff during flood stage; rather, our irrigators need that volume parsed out longer throughout the irrigation season.

The State Water Plan must recognize and emphasize the fact that these waters are a State asset, and especially the fact that since the 2007 Water Compact between Montana and the Forest Service that the feds are effectively subordinate to state water laws and must respond accordingly.

The current spate of headwater drainages that either are allowed to burn by wildfire, or, due to mismanagement of the vegetative fuel buildup cannot be safely suppressed, are already impacting our waters, and this Water Plan needs to analyze this issue in detail. In the 2010 USDA Forest Service RMRS-GTR-231 publication “Cumulative Watershed Effects of Fuel Management in the Western United States,” Chapter 7, “Fuel Management and Water Yield” by Troendle, MacDonald, Luce & Larsen, these scientific experts concluded that the data from 95 watershed experiments conducted in the US showed that, on average, annual runoff increases by nearly 2.5mm for each 1 percent of watershed area harvested [or burnt..poc]. They further conclude that approximately 20 percent of the basal area of the vegetation must be removed before a statistically significant change in annual runoff can be detected. Just imagine the impact when a watershed is burnt by wildfire! It is true that most hydrologic studies on the Forest Service have been conducted to consider the relationship of commercial timber harvest versus water flows; however, the harvest technology has been available for a long time to react and prevent negative water flow responses, whereas with wildfire, there is no management options (other than pre-fire vegetative) when complete drainages within watersheds are burnt.

This is an extremely serious issue for all water users, in particular communities that depend on federally managed watersheds for their water supply.

As a member of the Water Policy Interim Committee, and Vice Chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, I would appreciate assurances from the DNRC prior to the final delivery of the Plan to the EQC and WPIC committees that this issue will be been fully considered in the Plan.

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