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Smith River

Looking down Smith River from Pictograph Cave.

The Smith River rises out of the south end of the Little Belt Mountains and flows 118 miles north to its confluence with the Missouri, 9 miles above Great Falls at Ulm. A 60-mile stretch between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge is treasured by floaters, trout fishermen and house builders. Public use is very restricted. Five-thousand individual floaters apply every year for 750 permits, leaving 4,250 applicants disappointed. Recently, landowners successfully sued MT Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks for special access privileges, wanting two boat tags per ownership for unlimited daily use by families and guests. This has created a new user group among the floating public and permitted outfitters, squeezing more floaters on the river.

Sewage and waste water is leaching into the Smith River from the residences perched on the banks and limestone cliffs. Property owners scoop up rock from the channel with bulldozers to use as rip-rap against high water and ice jams. They don’t trouble to apply for 310 or 404 permits and enforcement of laws is lacking. A sure cure against additional residences would be to purchase the shoreline into public ownership. Almost yearly, the river gets so low and warm that trucks and ATV’s drive up and down the river by fording where cliffs pinch off access. Cattle and sheep grazing on lower segments of the river cause huge infestations of leafy spurge and prevent willow, dogwood and cottonwood from re-establishing.

The Smith cuts through a deep limestone canyon between the Big Belt and the Little Belt Mountains where entrenched meanders make it the most scenic river in Montana. Thirteen canoe camps sit on national forest, 8 are on state land and 5 on leased private land. Roughly 80% of the land is privately owned but the bed of the river up to the normal high-water line is owned by the public. From the Camp Baker launching point floaters must travel 60 miles to the next public access site at Eden Bridge, a 4 or 5-day float. The river was named in 1905 by the Lewis & Clark Expedition for Navy Secretary Robert Smith. In 1972, the Montana Fish & Game Commission designated the Smith River a Recreational Waterway and prohibited motorized use. In 1989, the MT Legislature passed the Smith River Management Act, which gave MTFWP the authority to administer a public drawing for permits, charge for permits and limit group sizes to 15.

In 1993 our legislature closed the Upper Missouri Basin to new surface water rights, but left groundwater wells open to appropriation. Streams are fed by groundwater and that’s where well drillers and center pivot irrigators are sucking the river dry. The basin is over-appropriated by private rights, with not enough water to satisfy demand. The state must require a minimum flow of 25% of the Average Annual Flow (AAF) as a base flow. Irrigators getting 75% and the river retaining 25%, should not be too much to ask to sustain this natural wonder of a river. The aquifer in the Smith River Basin functions as a single, hydraulically interconnected, unconfined system. Pumping from the groundwater reduces discharge to the river.

There are still 14 pending applications for use permits. Three are for expanded irrigation from the Galt family and three from the 6666 Ranch owned by Tom and Anne Burnett Trust. Others are for Arrowhead Meadows Golf Course, Riverside Ranch, and Helen Dupea & Ronald Jackson. Nine new permits for pumping 6,700 gallon per minute of groundwater. Wells will be from 100 to 200 ft. deep, delivering 95 to 1,650 gallon per minute. DNRC’s review of the applications states that new uses would reduce the river flow by 25 – 35%. Minimum water levels for fish in the river have not been met for 16 years. MTFWP stated “when the Smith River is dewatered to 80 cfs, the trout are reduced to half the numbers of a 150 cfs flow. On July 23, 2003, Judge McCarter ruled: “the state must suspend acting on applications in light of pending litigation by Trout Unlimited that the Upper Missouri River is a closed basin to new water rights.”

On March 13, 2004, DNRC Hearings Officer Charles Brasen recommended in a proposal for decision that “the state deny a request by the Smith Basin Hutterite Colony to expand its used of an irrigation well, because it pulls water from the Smith River. The groundwater requested is immediately and directly connected to surface water that would flow into the Smith River.” This ruling is very important for sportsmen and the fishery, because it says the groundwater is connected to the surface water. If the well is permitted, it would deplete the river. On March 14, 2004, DNRC asked Helena District Court Judge for direction as to whether the DNRC can continue to process water right applications in the basin in this stop-and-go process. June 2004, DNRC ordered three White Sulphur Springs ranchers, Bill Galt, Ben Galt and Tom and Anne Burnett of the 6666 Ranch to stop irrigating with un-permitted center pivots on land not covered under their existing water rights. They were accused of violating the Water Use Act. Where is the regard for other water uses? ~

Above, a cabin located is seen here on the banks of the Smith River resting on top of five feet of ice and shoved 400 feet down stream. Below, same structure a year later with an ice and flood wall constructed.

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