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State's Ability To Monitor Water Supplies Hit By Budget Cuts

A U.S. Geological Survey streamgage on Willow Creek near Harrison, MT. Because of funding reductions, the DNRC is discontinuing seven streamgages that are cooperatively managed by the state and USGS.

State budget cuts mean that ranchers, recreation businesses and conservationists who rely on accurate information about water in Montana are facing new challenges.

People like David Mannix, a fourth generation rancher in Powell county who runs Mannix Family Beef with his brother.

“In this day and age when water is more and more valuable and more and more in higher demand, it’s a concern to me that that would be where we cut,” he says.

Overall, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will see $1.8 million in cuts to its Water Resources Division.

That division is responsible for protecting the state’s water supplies.

The cuts are part of funding reductions Montana lawmakers set in motion when they wrote the state budget, and in the special legislative session that convened in November when further spending cuts were necessary to balance the budget.

They add up to a 10 percent reduction for the division, and fall primarily on stream flow monitoring and water conservation personnel.

John Tubbs is the DNRC’s Director. 

"The bottom line is that we'll have fewer people trying to serve Montana's public, trying to meet those future needs and those changing priorities, DNRC will have less capacity to try to do that,” Tubbs says.

He says the division depends on state general fund dollars to run operations and pay salaries. When general fund revenue is flat or declines, there’s less money for that.

“I don’t see this changing. The federal tax law will impact the state’s general fund again. I don’t expect in the 2019 session for there to be available general fund to regrow these programs. I have to be honest, that these reductions are in fact permanent,” Tubbs says.

Reductions will leave 12 full-time positions open, including one state hydrologist, two state engineers, and several water conservation specialists.

Water Resources is also discontinuing seven stream gages that are cooperatively managed by the state and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Kirk Miller is with the USGS. He overseesthe federal stream gaging program in Montana.

Miller says when a stream gage is discontinued and data is not longer available to the public, he hears about it.

“We don’t know who all the users are of those data until the site disappears from the web; and then the phone rings and the emails start coming in and we start to see how many different people in those communities are using those data, are relying on those data, sometimes for daily decisions,” Miller says.

For rancher David Mannix and his brother, the data is especially important once the irrigation season begins in the spring.

The Mannix ranch is situated in the Blackfoot Valley along Nevada Creek, near one of the seven stream gages being dropped by USGS and the DNRC.

Though Mannix understands the need for the state to be fiscally conservative, less state support on monitoring means he and his brother face increasing challenges managing their water resources.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s important for me the irrigator, it’s important for the fisheries guy, it’s important for the fishing guide, you know that’s part of the economic engine in the state more and more,” Mannix says.

Pat Cane is an independent fly fishing guide based in Missoula.

“Being able to monitor, know the actual real-time flows and temperature data is critical for making decisions,” he says.

Cane operates on the Blackfoot River and says streamflow data can dictate whether he goes out on the water, especially in the spring when runoff swells the river and in the summer when flows are low.

So-called "hoot owl restrictions" are generally put in place when low flows lead to high water temperatures that endanger fish populations.

Without the data to make good decisions, Cane worries that Montana rivers are worse off.

“Making these decisions to restrict the fishing and the recreation, it’s critical just to maintain the quality of these rivers; and if those types of decisions aren’t made, these rivers are going to suffer just from overuse,” Cane says.

Funding cuts have resulted in two USGS gages being dropped on the Blackfoot River.

One is on the North Fork of the river outside of Ovando, and one’s near Helmville, MT – the same gage that the Mannix brothers rely on.

Jennifer Schoonen is with the Blackfoot Challenge, a cooperative group of landowners who work with state and federal land managers to better manage shared water resources.

Schoonen says these gauges are an essential part of measuring results of the work the Blackfoot Challenge does.

“That Helmville gage is pretty important for us to demonstrate the positive side of drought response and of the various water conservation strategies and stream restoration work that’s happening up in that middle Blackfoot region,” she says.

Groups that rely on the stream gauges are starting to fund their operation themselves. As of late last year, two of the seven decommissioned state gages were reactivated with funding from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The Blackfoot Challenge’s Schoonen says her group is pursuing funding to operate the Helmville gage.

State budget cuts to water monitoring come two years after the DNRC released a State Water Plan that recommended more surface water monitoring in Montana The data they generate is also used to enforce legal agreements about water rights.

Correction 01/25/18 : Jennifer Schoonen, not Schonen works for the Blackfoot Challenge.

Beau is a former Morning Edition host and producer and engineer for the MTPR program "Capitol Talk." He worked as a reporter, and hosted Freeforms once a month.
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