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Water Leasing for Instream Flows

The 1989 Legislature passed House Bill 707, a 4-year pilot pro-gram allowing Montana State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FW&P) and Department of Natural Resources and Con-servation (DNRC) to study the feasibility of the State of Mon-tana leasing existing water rights to maintain stream-flows for fisheries on five stream reaches, good until 1993.

1. The first attempt was on Swamp Creek with a Big Hole rancher who wanted $200,000 a year to lease 3.38 cfs. FW&P made an appraisal which indicated the lease was only worth $5,000 a year. The 3.38 cfs lease required the approval of the 5- person FW&P Commission and the approval of the Montana State Board of Natural Resources and Conservation and also would have to be taken through the change of use process. The lease, of course, was not approved. There was not enough gold in Fort Knox to pay for this long-term lease and it would have bankrupted the fishermenęs license funds.

2. The second try was in the lower 6 miles of Mill Creek on the Yellowstone River. FW&P would lease water from John and Donna Gray for $7,500 a year for 2 and 4 cfs for 10 years total-ing $75,000. This was approved.

3. The third lease was from the Mill Creek Sewer and Water Dis-trict for $12,750 a year for 41 cfs once a year for 48 to 60 hours, to flush cutthroat trout juveniles down to the Yellowstone River for a period of 10 years at a cost of $127,000.

Leasing water for instream flow is administratively cumber-some. It creates a process where political considerations and personal enrichment are more important than biological or tech-nical reasons. It is paid by fishing license funds, which has its limits. With its stringent guidelines, it is a temporary fix and at its present rate it will take 400 years to resolve stream dewater-ing problems. Purchasing water with public funds for instream flow assumes that the person holding the water right owns the public water. Irrigators obtain the right to use public water without paying a fee. All water users that divert water from a natural stream, or pump water out of an aquifer for private ben-efit, should be assessed a tax for the amount of water they claim. It would stop irrigators from wasting water. Our present laws and volunteer programs do not guarantee stream-flows. We must pass fair legislation requiring non-degraded minimum stream-flows that benefit everyone.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Instream Water Leases

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