Legislative committee endorses working group to oversee Montana’s stream gauges

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

Next spring, Montana may take the first steps toward stabilizing its system of stream gauges.

On Monday, the Legislative Water Policy Interim Committee unanimously supported an effort to create a working group that would oversee the state’s stream gauges.

“The only reason this committee exists is the recognition by the citizens that water is the most crucial asset that this state has,” said committee chairman Pat Connell, R-Hamilton. “This is a significant step for the state of Montana.”

In what Connell dubbed “Sen. (Jon) Sesso’s Do-Something bill,” the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would create an oversight working group charged with coordinating the 29 organizations that maintain more than 210 gauges on streams and rivers throughout the state.

Such a group is necessary to help a variety of Montanans – from farmers to fishermen – who depend on stream gauge information, which includes flow levels and water temperature.

After federal funding was slashed a year ago, some of that information is being lost as gauges are shut down. That’s galvanized several watershed groups that lobbied the water policy committee this summer to help.

“We have 18 partners that pay into gauging stations on the Musselshell (River), and they feel strongly that these (gauges) are an important thing to have,” said Laura Nowlin, Musselshell Watershed Coalition coordinator.

The U.S. Geological Survey oversees the main gauge system, but the state, tribes and watershed groups manage some of their own gauges. That is, until money runs out. Then suddenly the information is gone.

Gauges cost money – an average of $18,000 for a year-round gauge and $12,700 for a shorter seven-month season.

But with an oversight group, other organizations could pitch in to help a struggling group keep a gauge going, said DNRC Water Resources chief Paul Azevedo. They could also come up with different kinds of funding.

“I don’t know what the best path is,” said Musselshell farmer Bill Milton. “I hope at the very end, wherever we go, you are directing those of us out in the field who want to resolve this issue and find some certainty, and that we are given the tools to work with you.”

The committee also considered a bill that would create an interim study of stream gauges and their funding. Some committee members supported it as a way to keep the Legislature in charge and to nudge the state toward pitching in general fund money.

But other committee members worried that the rest of the Legislature would kill Sesso’s bill in favor of the study bill.

“I don’t want (this bill) to fall prey to the study bill,” said Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon. “If (the study bill) is something we can agree on in principle, I’d be happy to consider carrying it later in the session.”

In the end, Connell proposed an amendment that the work group would report to both the interim legislative committee and the governor’s drought advisory council. The committee voted unanimously to support the bill.

If Sesso’s bill passes, it would go into effect at the end of April, just as streams are rising. Considering this past spring’s floods, that’s a good time to know how high rivers are flowing.

The committee also voted on whether to support various bills sponsored by state agencies.

One bill sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks that failed to get committee support on a 4-4 vote would eliminate a 2019 sunset date on a law allowing the agency to lease water rights to improve instream flows for fish.

FWP has been able to lease rights for 20 years and currently has 11 leases. But it’s trying to get four more and wants to convert two rights for permanent instream flows.

FWP Habitat Bureau chief Don Skaar said the leases have helped renew some fisheries, such as Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Big Creek in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston.

“It’s been useful, although it’s been limited by the resources we can put toward it,” Skaar said, referring to money needed to lease the rights.

FWP will introduce the bill, but Skaar will have to work harder to pass it without WPIC support.