Legislative committee debates ways to restore stream gauges across Montana

River users rely upon stream gauges to assess flows, including those on the lower Clark Fork River below St. Regis. (Missoula Current)

Frustrated by the slow pace of studies, some lawmakers want to restore funding for the gauges that measure Montana’s rivers.

Lawmakers spent almost an hour Tuesday debating what to do about the dwindling number of stream gauges during a meeting of the Water Policy Interim Committee in Helena.

In all, the committee debated 10 bills that might be considered by the 2019 Montana Legislature.

In the past, the U.S. Geological Survey maintained a vast system of stream gauges throughout the nation, and states augmented that system where additional information was needed.

Many Montanans, from fishing and rafting outfitters to irrigators, depend on those gauges to judge the water level of state streams. So they’ve been dismayed in recent years when several of Montana’s 225 gauges were shut down because of congressional and state budget cuts.

“The pressure on the federal government and especially on conservation groups to support in-stream flows relies so much on these USGS gauges,” said Jennifer Downing, Big Hole Watershed Committee executive director, who in May proposed a bill to study stream-gauge funding. “It’s not as simple as putting more state money toward it because the money is coming from so many different places.”

As the federal budget dwindled, the USGS asked states to cost-share on the stream gauges, and in some cases the cost fell to conservation districts, watershed groups or tribes.

But rural areas have fewer resources to contribute to cost-sharing, so they often are the first to lose their gauges, said Erin Farris-Olsen of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council.

“We’re interested in looking at that cost-share component and developing something with some level of sustainability,” Farris-Olsen said. “One other thing is the coordination of gauge management in the future. Because it was really the quick turnoff of these gauges that prompted this discussion.”

When Montana faced a budget deficit last year because of wildfire costs, government agencies had to cut 10 percent of their programs, so the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation shut down four stream gauges.

After hearing unanimous support in public comment for more data, the Water Policy Committee voted to support a bill proposing an interim study of stream gauges.

But Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, was a bit exasperated that a study would delay any action by at least two years. He pointed out that stakeholders had already provided input as part of a DNRC working group.

“There’s consensus that this water-data collection piece is important,” Sesso said. “I’m just a little impatient about having the upshot of this committee’s work be to recommend a study bill and then we’re going to study it for two years. Can’t we just cut to some recommendations?”

Sesso agreed to support the study bill, but he challenged the watershed groups to draw up a bill for the committee to consider in September that would address some of the issues now.

Sen. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, agreed.

“We need a vehicle to move forward. This needs to be done sooner rather than later,” Welborn said.

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The WPIC also heard from Rep. Ed Lieser in his role as the Flathead Basin Commission vice chair about the need for a study of septic systems.

As the population of the Flathead Valley has grown, especially around lakes, researchers have found more evidence of human waste from aging septic systems in lake water.

But when council members have tried to convince homeowners around Flathead, Whitefish and Echo lakes to connect to sewer systems, they’ve gotten little cooperation, Lieser said.

“The continued growth in unincorporated areas of the Flathead pose an ever-increasing potential for septic waste to influence the current high quality of these lakes,” Lieser said. “Delay in addressing this issue will further stress the water quality and ecology of these lakes with potential impact to our local and state economies.”

Mike Koopal of the Whitefish Lake Institute said the lakes will suffer algae blooms due to increases in phosphorus and nitrogen unless the number of aging septic systems are reduced.

“We need state support. Educational programs don’t work well on their own,” Koopal said.

Lawmakers also voted for number of smaller bills seeking to simplify water-rights changes.

The public can weigh in on the bills prior to the WPIC’s final meeting in September.