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Jefferson River

The Jefferson River can be a nationally important trout fishery and a valuable resource to visitors in Gallatin, Madison and Beaverhead counties. It has the largest drainage area of the three forks of the Missouri. Major tributaries are the North and South Boulder, Big Hole, Wise, Red Rock, Beaverhead and Ruby Rivers. Twenty-five percent of the Average Annual Flow of the river is the minimum level for protecting the basic life forms naturally occurring in streams that support fish.

In Montana, water rights come with the land and may date back to the 1860s. In drought years, there are more water right irrigation allocations in the Jefferson River than there is water. The drought of 1988 had a high impact on the Jefferson. I remember standing on the bank at Al Anderson's Canoe House, a few miles above the town of Three Forks. With me was Al's father and we were looking at the river. There was no flow between pools. Looking across the river at the end of August, a farmer was overhead irrigating his third cutting of alfalfa. Certainly he must have been aware of pumping water out of the adjacent aquifer and driving the river even lower. The agriculture community has been organized for 100 years and has been using our rivers hard over that same period.

The Jefferson River Water Council formed by Trout Unlimited, irrigators, business people and the fishing community, wrote a drought management plan that includes voluntary reductions in water diversions. Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks provided sport fishing closures when the Jefferson was reduced to certain low levels. These voluntary reductions (donations) which represent much money, have essentially kept the river from drying up since 1998. The irrigators are voluntarily retaining a base streamflow of 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) during the irrigation season and farmers are forced to make what water they have go further. As more and more people move into the Jefferson River watershed, there will be increasing demand on river water, while at the same time there's less rain falling in the drainage area. Flows at Twin Bridges on Jefferson River have fallen below 280 cfs twice in the summer of 2006. Below Twin Bridges the river has been as low as 36 cfs. At the Waterloo Bridge optimal low flow is 1,000 cfs, but in the recent past it has dropped to less than 20 cfs and fish populations have plummeted.

People who have a business interest in streamflow include irrigators, power companies, municipalities, homeowners and mining companies. Voluntary cooperation is necessary to keep a base flow in our streams to protect fisheries. 97.6% of water diverted from streams is for irrigation, but only 5% of Montanans hold water rights. Most streams in Montana have more water right claims than there is water in the streams. In most years there is not enough water for everyone, but in drought years there is not enough water for anyone. The overriding challenge to water management is how to deal with drought. While our legal system provides that first in time is first in right, during drought a more equitable sharing of water is necessary for everyone, including fish (see Emergency Streamflow For Fisheries bill).

The Old Hale Ditch Company would build an earth-fill dam across the Jefferson River during July or August in order to divert enough water into its ditch to meet demands of its irrigators. In low water times it diverted almost all of the water from the river into the ditch. During the following spring flood the entire dam would wash out, adding to the sediment load of the river. To avoid the work of forming this dam each year, a plan was made for a permanent rock dam, 45 ft wide and 300 ft long, spanning the river 10 miles above Three Forks. The dam was built by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly SCS) and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, costing $87,500, half of which paid by taxpayers. The dam diverts 50 cfs into the Old Hale Ditch when the river reaches a diminished flow of 150 cfs.

Something is wrong with the Jefferson River irrigation management system when a rock dam allows the diversion of 1/3 of the river's water into one company's irrigation ditch, leaving only a diminished flow of 100 cfs in this great river of Lewis and Clark. When we asked Governor Racicot for a moratorium on dams, Governor Racicot answered: “I cannot identify a single government agency that has the authority to place a moratorium on rock dam structures in the Jefferson River.” In reality, the State of Montana was given the beds of navigable streams under the Equal Footing Act when statehood was given by Congress and the President in 1889. ~

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