Report: Montana's Private Water Leasing Program Has Benefited Fisheries and Agriculture Alike
Trout Unlimited says unique program should be made permanent
Western Water Project
12/14/2004 -- Bozeman, Mont. -- Montana’s private instream water leasing program has been successful in benefiting both the state’s fisheries and agricultural producers, according to a report prepared by the conservation organization Trout Unlimited.
The report, entitled, Private Water Leasing – A Montana Approach, examines the 10-year history of the leasing program, its successes, and the opportunities for expanding and improving stream flows in the state by making the program permanent. The law authorizing the program is scheduled to expire in 2005, unless the legislature acts to renew it.
Established by the Montana Legislature in 1995, the private instream water leasing program is designed to improve stream flows for trout while benefiting the farming or ranching operation that holds the water right. While the concept of water leases between a water right holder and a private entity for the purpose of protecting habitat was initially controversial, the unique program has bridged many of the differences that have often existed between the conservation and agriculture communities.
“The water leasing statute has allowed unprecedented cooperation between agricultural and conservationist interests who are working together to find flexible commonsense ways to benefit agriculture and fisheries,” said Laura Ziemer, the director of Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project.
Under private leasing, consumptive-use water rights (typically agricultural irrigation rights) are leased to a private entity for the purpose of improving stream flows. Water right holders may also convert their water right to instream flows without entering into a lease with anyone, by changing the use of their water right to an instream use. Both leases and private conversions can run for up to ten years with a possibility of one renewal.
Since its adoption by the Legislature, there have been 20 private leases approved statewide. Rivers like the Blackfoot, the Missouri, the Clark Fork, the Madison and the Yellowstone, to name a few, have benefited from the leasing program. Instream leases or conversions have also benefited lesser-known streams, like Rock Creek and Cold Spring Creek.
In some cases, the leases have allowed irrigators to improve their management flexibility to the long-term benefit of their businesses. In several cases, the program has shown that an irrigator’s water needs can continue to be fully met – through the introduction of new laborsaving technologies – while at the same time providing water for fish. Others have received payments for signing a lease.
Experience under the leasing program has also shown that changing a water right to instream uses for fishery purposes is most effective on relatively small tributaries. “Tributaries are vital to the health of wild trout fisheries because they often provide critical habitat for spawning and rearing,” said Stan Bradshaw, an attorney with Trout Unlimited who has negotiated a number of leases. “In many locations in the state, they are quite literally the spawning and rearing factories for wild fish.”
Bradshaw said a little bit of water in a tributary can go a long way in restoring a mainstem fish population. Of the 20 leases or changes that have been completed, 19 were on relatively small tributaries.
In addition to highlighting the leasing program’s effectiveness, the report made a number of recommendations for the future of the program. Those recommendations include that the Montana Legislature should renew the law and make it permanent; the leasing statute should allow for permanent transfers of water rights to instream use, should an agricultural producer decide that to be in his or her best interest; since the initial application process is so thorough and restrictive, the leasing statute should allow for automatic renewals of the instream use upon the expiration of the lease term, if the water rights holder asks for it; and, that water rights holders should be allowed to renew their instream uses as many times as they would like to, rather than be limited to one renewal.
Mission: Trout Unlimited is the nation’s leading coldwater conservation group dedicated to the protection of trout and salmon populations and the watersheds on which they depend. The organization has 3,000 members in the state of Montana.