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What a new water plan could mean for state climate policy

Dan Boyce

A Democratic state representative believes a new water plan being developed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) may provide a vehicle for inserting more climate science into state policy.

On Tuesday, members of the legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee heard presentations from several prominent state climate scientists on the future of agricultural water use. These addressed the changing of Montana’s mountain snowpack, key stresses on the state’s water sources, and projections of future water supply.

Rep. Reilly Neill (D-Livingston) brought the scientists before the committee, in the hopes of securing a place for their information in a new state water plan, which is due sometime later this year.

The DNRC is updating the state’s water plan for the first time in about 20 years. DNRC Water Resources Division Administrator Tim Davis said it’s not clear exactly what data will appear in this new planning document, but it will include research on the impacts of climate change on water resources that just didn’t exist when the last plan was approved. The water plan will give policy recommendations to the Legislature.

Human-caused climate change remains a politically-divisive topic among state lawmakers. Bills acknowledging climate change have been quickly dismissed by Republican majorities in past legislative sessions.

But Rep. Neill said focusing on water could provide a “backdoor” for climate science to become a more serious part of policy discussions.

“Stream flow numbers, we’re gonna trust that, snowpack numbers, we’re gonna trust all that science,” she said. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future of the state, not just the state water plan but also perhaps a relaxing of the politics of global warming or climate change, so we can actually get some work done.”

“We all recognize that water is the key universal ingredient to economic health, vitality, quality of life for Montana,” said Rep. Pat Connell (R-Hamilton), who is also on the water policy interim committee and says the state is clearly dealing with shorter winters.

“To ignore that as a risk to our water resource is at our own peril,” he said.

Connell is not willing to go so far as to say humans are causing the changes Montana’s climate is experiencing, but he agrees it’s useful to have that data as part of the discussion.

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