Water is owned by citizens not irrigators

A recent article about the low flow on the Yellowstone River (Oct.6h) missed an opportunity to inform Montana citizens about water in Montana.  http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/low-flows-high-temps-the-new-normal-on-yellowstone/article_85a816c3-3b81-50e1-9734-d9e733662f80.html#utm_source=bozemandailychronicle.com&utm_campaign=morning-headlines&utm_medium=email&utm_content=headline


What is not well-known is that water in Montana (as in the rest the West) is public property owned by the state’s citizens. Like the air, water is considered a public resource. Water can only be removed from a stream if the state’s citizens feel this is a good use of that water.


Nearly all water (97%) diverted from our streams is used for irrigation–primarily growing hay and other forage for livestock. Ranchers have used this water for free–at no cost–and to the detriment of our aquatic ecosystems. It may have made sense 100 years ago to give all of OUR water to ranchers, but today there are many other people, as well as wildlife, that depend on the water in our rivers for their enjoyment as well as their survival. Fishing guides, rafting company, hotels and cafes that cater to tourists, and just the many people in Montana who love seeing a free-flowing river are all “dependent” on adequate river flows. .


The term “water right” is misleading. It is a legal way of divvying up water–if, and only if–the state’s citizens want to give away their water.


Times have changed. We need to reconsider how we allot water. Our rivers and the aquatic ecosystems should get first shot at the water. Only after enough flows exist to support fisheries, river recreation, and other activities should any water be diverted to irrigators. And even if this does occur, maybe it’s time for the state’s citizens to benefit by charging for the use of its water.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner