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Summit Looks At Impact Of Changing Climate, Demographics On Montana's Water Future

Panelists at the Montana Water Summit in Helena, MT, March 7, 2018. From the left: Leon Szeptycki, Marco Maneta, Patty Gude, John Tubbs.
Nicky Ouellet
Panelists at the Montana Water Summit in Helena, MT, March 7, 2018. From the left: Leon Szeptycki, Marco Maneta, Patty Gude, John Tubbs.

More than 300 people from across Montana met in Helena this week to talk about big changes the state is seeing in water —  from when it falls, to how and where it’s used, to the way Montanans value it.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation hosted Montana’s first Water Summit, which Chief Earl Old Person of the Blackfeet Tribe kicked off with a blessing.

"Today we are gonna all have to come together, and be together, if we're going to make water to be what we want it to be within our state and within our country," Old Person says.

Mike Gaffke, rancher and president of the Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators Association echoed the need for water rights owners to cooperate. He says a changing precipitation regime is likely to exacerbate late season droughts and increase demand on surface water.

"If I approach water as my individual right that I'm holding onto, then I could see how change could really be scary, but if we look at ... [water] as a community commodity, then I can see the change is not nearly as scary," Gaffke says.

Change is already happening, says Marco Maneta, a hydrology professor at the University of Montana. Montana is getting hotter, which means less snow and more rain coming at times that’ll prove difficult for farmers.

"Agricultural yields remain very strong, fueled by better practices and better technology. So we've seen an increase in agricultural productivity, but Eastern Montana is much more exposed to precipitation variability than Western Montana," says Maneta.

But it’s not just the amount and timing of water that’s changing. Where people live, and how they want to use water, is also shifting, says Patty Gude, the associate director at Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics Research.

"We've had 1.3 million acres of land go from working land and open space to housing, just in the last quarter century. So, just to wrap your brains around how much space that really is, that’s about equal to all the land managed by the National Park Service in the state of Montana."

As Montana’s lands become more popular, so do its rivers. Fly fishing guide Brant Oswald says his industry, while booming, can’t rely on historic seasonal patterns to book trips, because peak flows have changed drastically in recent years.

"One of the things we're seeing in our world is changes in scheduling. What we think of as the fishing season isn't what it was 20 years ago," Oswald says.

Kevin Hyde with the Montana Climate Office says in the end, navigating Montana’s water future — whether that means drought, flooding, contamination or shortages — requires good planning and cooperation.

"Have the conversations now, where there isn't the pressure to restore, and make sure that people have agreement before the crisis hits," Hyde says.

The two-day Montana Water Summit: Water in a Changing West wrapped up on Wednesday. A mix of water policy experts, climate scientists and water users worked on outlining Montana’s current water availability, and showcased examples of how communities are preparing for future changes.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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