Two of Montana’s biggest industries, tourism/recreation and agriculture, like everything else in life, need water to thrive. Both sectors of the economy suffer when the water runs low. Back in the 1980’s it was not uncommon for the river to virtually dry up at Bell Crossing north of Victor. That’s when Bitterrooters got together and decided to buck the old adage that comes to everyone’s mind in Montana on hot summer days: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” Instead, irrigators and recreationists came together to change the old adage into something new and promising: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for managing.” Instead of fighting over the water, citizens with competing interests came together to work something out. The result was a coordinated water sharing plan that has been working remarkably well now for almost 40 years.
The plan involves extremely close monitoring of water flows and very careful rationing of the water held behind the state-owned dam at Painted Rocks Reservoir up the West Fork. Dam Tender and Bitterroot River Water Commissioner J. R. Iman works closely with Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Civil Engineering Specialist Larry Schock.
Iman, a former Ravalli County Commissioner and former President of the Painted Rocks Water Users Association, replaced long-time Bitterroot Water Commissioner Al Pernichle as dam tender last year. It is his job to keep tabs on the amount of water flowing into the reservoir and the amount flowing out and regulate the flows so that all of the competing interests get a share when water runs low.
“It’s not a perfect system,” said Iman, “but we try to make sure that when water runs low that neither the irrigators nor the fishermen are left high and dry and the river never runs completely dry.”
Every year the reservoir is filled until water flows over the spillway in preparation for the coming season. As summer moves along, and inflows from the five streams feeding into the reservoir begin to recede, the water levels in the reservoir begin to drop and intensive management of water releases begins.
The state leases water saved up in the dam to two parties with different interests. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) owns the right to 15,000 acre feet while the Painted Rocks Water Users Association (PRWUA) owns the right to 10,000 acre feet. The distribution is a coordinated balancing act that usually begins in mid-summer once the reservoir is filled.
Water releases usually begin when the inflows start dropping off. The flows generally bottom out at a low of about 75 to 100 cubic feet per second (cfs). This year inflows into the reservoir remained high for a few weeks longer than normal to everyone’s benefit. The FWP releases are meant to stay in the river, providing a refreshing flow of cold water for the fisheries downstream. Irrigators, on the other hand, try to start their water draws as late as possible so that they can extend the irrigation season during the driest part of the year at summer’s end.
DNRC releases the water when it is called for by the water users. This year FWP took its first release of water, about 52 cfs, starting on July 15. About 65% of the outflows were coming out of the low-level outlet and 35% is flowing over the spillway. As the inflows continue to recede, the percentage of water going over the spillway decreases and the percentage of outflows from the low-level outlet will continue to increase. Whenever possible, gate adjustments are made mid-week, and releases are generally made in 50-75 cfs increments. Contract deliveries are dependent upon weather and river conditions.
With inflows at about 127 cfs, DNRC began releasing another 50 cfs to FWP on July 26, bringing the total release for instream flows to 105 cfs (about 210 acre feet per day). Releases to the irrigators also began with about 25 cfs (50 acre feet per day) going to the irrigators.
In a perfect world for fish FWP biologists estimate that it would be nice to have at least 350 to 400 cfs flowing at Bell Crossing to maintain a good fishery. Under the current flow regimes, that is not possible. The aim, of course, is to keep the water levels in the river as high as possible. When it’s not possible the managers do the best they can.
“Nobody gets everything they need in this situation,” said Iman, “but we try to manage it so that no one runs dry.” This year, according to Iman, they will be lucky to keep 275 cfs flowing at Bell Crossing.
Iman said that anyone with questions about the water releases can call DNRC at (406) 542-5885. You may have your name added to a contact list for timely reports. Iman said that transparency was essential to the operation and that all adjustments to the dam releases are published and shared with all parties and the public.
“The more people know about what’s happening the less problems we have,” said Iman.