Halving it all 

The era of trade-off economies

The old adage of the “American Dream” is that with enough hard work and dedication, “you can have it all.” Hate to say it, but the avalanche of available evidence is now pointing in exactly the opposite direction. No matter how hard you work, no matter how dedicated you are, our basic resources are now so seriously stressed that we have entered the era of trade-off economies in which we can have some things, or we can have other things, but we can no longer have it all.

Global warming, which virtually everyone believes is being exacerbated by human industrial activity, is continuing to pick up speed. Polar ice caps are melting, oceans are heating up, currents are changing, and associated weather patterns are in flux. Lowland areas around the globe, from Eskimo villages in the Arctic to tropical islands, are receding beneath rising seas.

Here in Montana, as in most of the West, we are now living with the grim reality of those changes on land. For Montanans, the most obvious indicators of global warming are a rise in average temperatures that is causing shorter winters, reduced snowpack, quicker melt-off, and long, hot summers of fire, smoke and ash. Our once snow-crowned mountain ranges are now lucky to be covered in white for even part of the year. Glacier National Park, meanwhile, may be facing a name change soon as its famed namesakes continue to disappear.

This year, Montana’s sixth consecutive drought year, is shaping up to be one of the worst. A quick review of the streamflows in the state (which you can access at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ mt/nwis/current?type=flow) leaves little doubt that we are in for a hard lesson in trade-off economies.

Virtually all of the state’s rivers are running at half, or less, of their normal flows. If we had a massive snowpack, a cold, wet spring, and low flows resulting from a lack of melting, it might be no problem. But the reality is just the opposite. Our low and middle level snowpack is already gone. March, a month in which Montana should have been accumulating snow, turned hot and dry early on, resulting in a negative accumulation of snowpack. April, meanwhile, produced record high temperatures for the state. And those river flows? Well, consider them harbingers of worse things to come.

Recent reports put the state’s winter wheat crop in such bad shape that in some areas farmers are simply abandoning their first plantings and reseeding their fields. In just one week, winter wheat conditions dropped from 30 percent to 25 percent in “good or excellent” shape. Besides the shockingly low overall number indicating a mere one-quarter of the wheat crop is in good shape, it doesn’t take a math wizard to understand what losing 5 percent of your “good” conditions per week means to overall crop survival and production.

In the meantime, the recent decision by the Corps of Engineers to increase releases from an already-low Fort Peck Reservoir has Montana’s Congressional delegation up in arms. In a recent letter, Sen. Max Baucus accused the Corps of “pitting the upper basin states against each other, robbing one state of its precious water to provide a minimal benefit to another state.”

“This is absolutely outrageous,” Baucus complained. “All of our fisheries are devastated. All of our local economies are devastated. All of our reservoirs are too low.”

Unfortunately, in spite of all the huffing and puffing, none of our Congressional leaders seems able to connect the dots of cause and effect. While it is easy to rail at the Corps of Engineers for releasing water from Montana for the dubious benefit of downstream states, not one member of our Congressional delegation voted to up the mileage requirements for cars and trucks. Their pitiful logic, if you can call it that, revolved around an unsubstantiated threat that raising fuel efficiencies for trucks would somehow brutalize Montana’s ag economy.

In the real world of trade-off economies, however, America’s on-going love affair with gas-guzzlers is contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases and the reduction in rainfall and snowpack. Montana’s ag economy isn’t being brutalized by higher mileage pickups, but by the trade-offs our policymakers have endorsed. Through their votes, Max, Conrad, and Denny have willingly traded off the ag economy of their home state for the economy of the auto and petroleum industries.

But of course the trade-offs don’t stop there. No snow in the mountains and no water in the rivers doesn’t just mean the ag economy gets hurt. Without water, farmers, ranchers, municipalities, businesses and recreational and domestic users will soon be at each other’s throats.

For example, hydroelectric dam owners have some of the oldest water rights in the state—and they have the legal right to shut down junior users to get their water. On the Clark Fork, a “call” on water rights by Avista, which holds the largest water right in the state, could shut down 3,000 junior irrigation users and over 7,000 holders of junior use rights.

Missoula’s entire water supply is at risk as Avista has served notice that groundwater rights are connected to surface flows and can also be called. Municipal rights for Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Thompson Falls, Seeley Lake, Pinesdale and Stevensville are threatened, as are the industrial water rights for Stone Container, Montana Resources Inc., Montana Forest Products, Winter Sports Inc., and others.

In the Upper Missouri Basin, if PPL puts a “call” on its senior water rights, the state estimates 2,000 irrigators would cease production on 222,712 acres, resulting in $43,485,000 in lost ag revenues annually.

Max’s wail that “all our fisheries are devastated…all our local economies are devastated” isn’t true quite yet. What’s becoming undeniably clear, however, is that we can no longer pretend that “having it all” is even a remote possibility.

We desperately need sustainable, interlocking environmental and economic policies that realize the limitations of what we’ve got left—and we need ’em now.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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