You don’t need a forecast from a meteorological wizard to tell you what’s happening to our snowpack. Anyone who has been in the mountains in the last month knows it’s going, going, gone! The sun has returned to the northern hemisphere with a vengeance, and while lawnmowers buzz in town, the surrounding mountains are already beginning to bake.
As Montana lurches into its sixth continuous year of burning drought, our political leaders fiddle merrily along, laying out their wild dreams of continuous economic expansion and natural resource exploitation as the saviors of Montana’s future. What you won’t hear them talk much about, however, is global warming and the limits that nature is imposing on all of our systems as the drought continues.
The most obvious impact, even to the least informed, is the lack of water in our reservoirs, rivers and streams. Montana’s surface water resources have long been over-appropriated—meaning there is far more water claimed for use than the rivers can provide even in the best of years—and we haven’t seen the best of years for some time now.
From the time it leaves the steep mountainsides, the flow of precious water is diverted through a million gravity-fed irrigation ditches as it makes its way to the valley floor. While Montana’s west slope has traditionally been wet enough to prevent total dewatering of rivers and streams, east of the Continental Divide has not been so fortunate. For several years running, the once-wonderful Musselshell River has gone totally dry for hundreds of miles. The Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, and Big Hole Rivers—the legendary trout streams for which Montana is internationally famous—all suffer from the impacts of continuing drought.
Needless to say, the economies that were built upon the healthy wild trout fisheries these rivers once supported are likewise suffering. River closures, formerly a last resort, are now commonplace in the burning heat of summer. When the water levels drop, water temperatures go up and up and up—until even catch-and-release fishing with barbless flies stresses the fish beyond their ability to recover, and they go floating downstream belly-up instead of swimming back to their deep holes.
Meanwhile, as lake and reservoir levels across the state continue to drop, once-active marinas and fishing access sites sit nearly abandoned, their launching ramps and boat docks resting high and dry, hundreds of yards of powdery, cracked lakebed between them and the retreating pools of water.
Instead of facing the very real limits of supply and demand that global warming is bringing us, we have turned to pumping groundwater to augment the endless demands of our consumption society. The groundwater, like surface water, seeks to make its way to the lowest points in our valleys, where it forms the water table and keeps our rivers flowing. But now, even that subterranean flow is threatened by thousands of new wells as the valleys fill with homes and large agricultural operations move to pumping groundwater as surface waters diminish.
How serious is the threat? Well, let’s put it this way, the cumulative impacts from several new pumping proposals on the famed Smith River were estimated by state hydrologists to be capable of reducing the river’s flow by as much as 25 percent in late-summer, where dewatering-caused fish kills have already been documented in the last two years.
Our current batch of would-be state leaders aren’t talking much about what this means for their plans to “grow” Montana—but they should be. Already, new subdivisions in our high and dry mountain valleys are being turned down because there is simply not enough groundwater to ensure domestic supplies. Lawsuits are springing up as developers, ever ready to provide “affordable housing,” simply ignore the long-term dependability of the water supply—the most basic necessity for life.
As the rivers shrink, so does their ability to dilute the panoply of pollutants they receive from all sides. Municipal wastewater treatment plants, industrial discharge permits, agricultural, municipal, and industrial runoff all seek the lowest point and make their way to our rivers. Although Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has tried a thousand tricks to redefine “impaired,” the basic fact remains that we have thousands of miles of impaired waterways that are losing the battle against pollution.
None of this is startling new information. What would be new—and novel—would be to see a politician actually vow to clean up these long-suffering waterways, to present a plan, to appropriate funding, and to get the work done on the ground to restore the arteries that carry the lifeblood of the state. But don’t hold your breath waiting.
Compared to forest fires, however, the slow strangulation of our rivers is a sideshow to the continuing drought. Our forgotten-but-not-yet-gone governor pledged her utmost capabilities to dealing with wildfire. Yet, faced with runaway state costs for fighting fires, the committee Martz appointed to come up with an equitable formula for funding those firefighting costs came up with zilch—they can’t even figure out who should pay, or how. Given her obvious inability to lead, perhaps Martz’ frequent recourse to prayer and blind faith is, after all, her best bet for problem-solving.
For the rest of us, however, prayer alone is unlikely to do much about the continuing impacts of global warming and over-development. Case in point: all those SUVs lumbering down the road with Glacier National Park or Trout Unlimited license plates. Are the owners simply missing the connection—or just ameliorating their guilt through a token donation? The glaciers, like the trout and the forests, are vanishing in large part due to the exhaust pumping out of America’s big fat tail pipes.
The absence of true political leadership on these issues is shameful. Here comes the sun—and the impacts are everywhere. Next time a political candidate talks about development, ask them where they’re going to get the water. Odds are, they won’t know.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org