By Kate Clyatt, Drought Technician
If you’ve been around in the Blackfoot long enough, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the words “Murphy right” or “Milltown right” thrown around. If you’re an irrigator in the watershed, you’ve probably been affected by one or both of these instream water rights. Due to recent changes in water law, any surface water rights with a priority date junior to 1904 could be called in a drought year if flows in the Blackfoot River are low enough to warrant restrictions.
Luckily, because of the long history and success of voluntary, collaborative drought management in the Blackfoot watershed, the Blackfoot Challenge has continued and expanded the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan as the primary response to the changes to the Milltown water right.
In the summer of 2020, after some delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was hired on as a drought technician for the Challenge. I work with Jennifer Schoonen, who has been the Challenge’s Water Steward for nearly a decade. Given the need to expand the drought program rapidly over the next five years in response to the Milltown right changes, it was time to give the drought committee some extra help.
When I started my position with the Challenge, I was introduced to the term “shared giving,” the idea that if we all give what we can, that we can lift everyone up alongside us to weather the storm, whatever it may be.
As a resident of Helmville and a ranch hand for the Mannix Brothers Ranch, I know how critical water is to the producers in this watershed and beyond. I’ve anxiously waited for winter snows and spring rains, put in my fair share of canvas dams, and baled the fruits of this labor with a John Deere. I care deeply about the success of my neighbors and preserving the legacy of family farms and ranches within the valley and beyond. It is my hope that the drought program can help preserve this legacy, as we all face uncertain climate conditions and greater pressure on the river and its tributaries.
When I started my position with the Challenge, I was introduced to the term “shared giving,” the idea that if we all give what we can, that we can lift everyone up alongside us to weather the storm, whatever it may be. In the context of water and drought, this means reducing our usage to what we absolutely need in times of drought, so that our neighbors may also get what they need, and that the fish get what they need. While it may mean tightening the belt a loop during a dry year, it may also mean that the name on your neighbor’s land title stays the same for another 100 years.
Water rights are complicated. Drought is hard. Recreation pressure on the Blackfoot is at an all-time high, putting even greater pressure on the fisheries and the landowners who steward the river. But if there is a community that can be resilient in the face of uncertainty, it’s this one.
When it comes to water, I believe expanding the drought program is the first step towards creating this resiliency. If we can all give what we can, I believe we have a lot to gain. At the moment, we have a hundred or so landowners involved in the program. I am hopeful that we can grow this to several hundred over the next few years. I am hopeful that we can flourish together during years of abundance, and survive together during years of scarcity.
At the moment, we have a hundred or so landowners involved in the program.
I am hopeful that we can grow this to several hundred over the next few years.
To summarize, the drought program is here to find the win-win. We’re here to figure out what your water resources and needs are, what opportunities you may have to conserve water in drought years, and what stewardship opportunities we may be able to help with. If you’re already involved in the drought program, we’ll make sure your plan is updated for the changes to the Milltown right. We’ll also talk about any long-term restoration projects you have done or are hoping to do. The drought committee is engaged in an exciting new venture to try to credit landowners for these projects as part of their drought plans. It’s complicated, and there are no guarantees it’ll pan out, but it’s worth the try.
If you’re not yet enrolled in the program, I encourage you to join. If you have rights junior to the 1904 priority date that are critical to your operation, we may find ways for you to keep using those rights during water shortages. If all of your rights are senior or not critical to your operation, there is still an opportunity for you to give during scarcity and we welcome your participation.
I am looking forward to talking with you and finding a way forward for your operation and our invaluable water resources.
To find out more about participating in the drought program or to update your plan, please give me a call at 406-214-2592 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy Camille Coughlin and Mannix Brothers Ranch.