Too many straws sucking our rivers dry

10,000 straws in 1 river? It's a bad idea.

Montanans understand that when it comes to water, you’ve got to be smart, careful, and fair. Managing water wisely helps avoid the risk of overusing rivers, drying up pastures, harming fish and wildlife, hurting recreation, and leaving communities high and dry.

But a legal loophole introduced in 1993 has changed all that, making it possible to drill thousands of groundwater wells for new subdivisions without so much as a single permit. It’s not only a threat to our rivers, it’s unfair to other water users.

Five years ago in 2009, the Coalition joined several senior water right holders across the state to petition the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to set aside the problematic exempt well rule and draft a new rule that meets Montana’s water needs while also protecting existing water users. The petition process culminated in 2010 with a court-approved stipulation in which DNRC agreed to amend the rule to protect existing water rights.

Unfortunately, the rulemaking process has not resulted in a positive result for our rivers. Now, the Coalition is seeking to resolve this issue once and for all. As the low water year of 2013 clearly demonstrated, our streams and creeks need running water more than ever. Any proposed new large water use must prove that water is physically and legally available before they can be allowed to tap an already over-appropriated system. If the State of Montana continues to waiver on solving the problem of exempt wells, than existing water users (like ranchers, recreationists, cities and towns), will continue to see their once secure water rights trickle away.

It’s time to put an end to it.

Join CFC on Monday, March 24 at 12 noon for a free brown bag ‘Walks and Talks’ presentation on Montana’s unwise and unfair exempt well loophole and how you can help fix it. We’ll cover actions you can take now, plus ways to prep for the 2015 legislative session.

Monday March 24 – 12 pm – CFC offices – 140 S. 4th St. West
Learn more about exempt wells

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Fish Creek in western Montana

We can do better at Fish Creek.

SUBMIT COMMENT TODAY

Sometimes, things just don’t go together. Like cats and sweaters. Or a native trout stream and an over-developed park.

Fish Creek provides the best spawning habitat for native westslope cutthroat trout and the threatened bull trout between Rock Creek and the St. Regis River. It’s also home to diverse wildlife and is slated to be a new Wildlife Management Area.

But Montana State Parks is proposing a high-impact campground development — including extensive trails and facilities — smack dab in the middle of this sensitive area. The proposal just doesn’t make sense.  Plus, it ignores public input about the future park, which called for low-impact activities like hiking, hunting, and fishing — uses that allow full enjoyment of this outstanding natural area without loving it to death.

Will you ask Montana State Parks to back away from the intensive uses proposed at Fish Creek State Park? Submit your comments on the Draft Management Plan by Feb. 7. Click here to check out CFC’s official comments and find additional talking points.

SUBMIT COMMENT TODAY

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by Kascie Herron, with assistance from Dr. Chris Brick and Jill Alban

Unfortunately, pollution can enter and harm rivers in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the problems are sudden and severe— for a recent example, readers may recall the gruesome look of the discolored Yellowstone River following the rupture of an ExxonMobil pipeline near Billings in 2011.

Algae as a result of nutrient pollution

Nutrient pollution can cause excessive algal growth, harming aquatic life. Credit: NOAA

Pollution also takes different, less obvious forms – for example, harm can also be caused by high, undesirable concentrations of particular elements. Nutrient pollution in water refers to an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus. Small concentrations of these elements are natural, but having too much of them creates a perfect breeding ground for nuisance algae. Excessive algal growth can make water murky and can choke out aquatic insects, making it harder for trout to find food and habitat. When algae die, their decomposition uses up oxygen in the water and can suffocate fish, sometimes resulting in death. Nuisance algae is also undesirable for people who like to float and fish in rivers. So how does the state of Montana manage this particular pollution problem?

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus can end up in rivers via a variety of means, such as wastewater, industrial practices, runoff from fertilizers and pesticides, and much more. Until now, the State used narrative criteria to determine the impact of nutrients on streams. Currently, Montana law prohibits any increase in nitrogen or phosphorous that will “cause measurable changes in aquatic life or ecological integrity.” As readers can likely discern, this criteria is open to interpretation and virtually unenforceable. However, because the Clean Water Act did not originally outline specific guidelines, this is how nutrients have been assessed.

More recently, a nationwide decrease in water quality as a result of nutrient pollution, coupled with rigorous development of the underlying science to justify numeric standards compelled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to start cracking down on states to adopt numeric standards. Currently, there are only eight states in the country (in addition to the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa) that have established state-wide numeric criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters. In Montana, the Clark Fork River is the only stream to have numeric standards, developed in 1998 through the Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program. The rest of Montana will now join the ranks.

The proposed rules arguably represent the most significant tightening of Montana water quality standards in 20 years. They will require DEQ to place new enforceable limits for nutrients in discharge permits for point sources of pollution, such as wastewater treatment plants, oil and gas development, mining, power plants and industrial agriculture—and these limits won’t be easy to meet.

For this reason, DEQ formed a Nutrient Work Group of industry, municipal, and conservation stakeholders to help develop numeric nutrient standards and determine practical, realistic ways to implement them. The Clark Fork Coalition participated in this effort, and now, after over three years, we’re headed to final rule-making in 2014. There will be a public comment period as part of this process, and we’ll be sure to let you know what we think of the final rules and how you can comment. Until then, the latest version of the rule package can be found on the DEQ website on this page. (Scroll to the bottom and click on “Related Documents”).

Questions on nutrient standards? Contact Science Director Chris Brick at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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Why do individuals, businesses, and groups give to the Clark Fork Coalition? We sat down with three CFC members to learn why they think it’s so important to support our work restoring and protecting clean water in the Clark Fork.

ROW Adventures founder Peter Grubb

Peter Grubb, Founder, ROW Adventures

“A critical part of our culture at ROW is giving back to our local communities and the resources where we operate. The Clark Fork Coalition’s annual Affinity Float is the perfect marriage of both! Naturally we are committed to healthy, free-flowing rivers. We find our purpose when we share the resource with others and create advocates for its protection.

We are so pleased to see these local youth, who would not likely otherwise be able to raft the river, get out and share a day of fun, laughter and learning in their own backyard.  We are very appreciative of this opportunity to give back and support the Clark Fork Coalition while also providing a life-changing experience for our young people who will be the river’s future advocates.”

Morgan Hollis, Owner, Boom Swagger Salon

Morgan Hollis, Owner, Boom Swagger Salon

“We were tremendously excited to give a portion of our salon’s proceeds to the Clark Fork Coalition as part of the Aveda Earth Month corporate partnership in 2013. One of Aveda’s main goals is clean water for people and wildlife across the world. The Coalition’s work is extremely important to everyone at our local salon because we all love to enjoy our local rivers and the outdoors, in and around Missoula.  As a small business in Missoula, we’re also very aware of how important community involvement and support can be.”

Dan Spencer, Associate Professor, University of Montana

Dan Spencer, Associate Professor, University of Montana

“As an Environmental Studies professor at the University of Montana, I work with a wide range of nonprofit groups. In terms of vision, effectiveness, and the importance of its mission, the Clark Fork Coalition is at the top of my list of favorite environmental organizations. In fact, their work is so important to me that I give monthly through payroll deduction so I don’t miss the opportunity to contribute on a regular basis.

The Clark Fork is the lifeblood of our region, and the Coalition has been critical to protecting its integrity and restoring its health. Every fall my “Ethical Issues in Ecological Restoration” graduate class partners with the Coalition on conservation projects on ranches across the Upper Clark Fork basin. The Coalition’s tireless and patient work to build partnerships throughout the watershed is laying the foundation for a healthy river system for years to come.”

I am proud to be both a supporter of and a collaborator with the Coalition’s programs.  I invite you to join me in supporting this vital work!”

Whether you’re an outfitter, business owner, educator, or someone who just can’t get enough of our gorgeous rivers, there are many ways to support clean water. Become a member, gift a membership to a friend, name the Coalition as a beneficiary on your insurance policy, make a special year-end contribution, make a planned gift, or simply give us a call to learn how you can become more involved.

Thank you for everything you do to help the Clark Fork River.

Thank you from all of us.Thank you from all of us.Thank you from all of us.Thank you from all of us.

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Clark Fork River near Frenchtown

State officials recently issued a fish consumption advisory for 105 miles of the Clark Fork River.

Dioxins. Furans. These aren’t words we typically associate with western Montana’s spectacular rivers. Unfortunately, a recent study by MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) shows that high levels of these carcinogenic substances have been found in northern pike and rainbow trout in areas downstream of the former Smurfit-Stone mill site west of Missoula.

The data brought to light in this recent study compelled FWP, the MT Dept. of Environmental Quality, and MT Public Health and Human Services to issue fish advisories for 105 miles of the Clark Fork from its confluence with the Bitterroot downstream to the Flathead River. In sum, state agencies are advising people to consume no more than four (4) rainbow trout per month, and to avoid eating northern pike altogether.

MT FWP opted to conduct their investigations into game fish populations following the release of initial survey results conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at Smurfit in 2011. The EPA-study sampled sludge ponds and river sediments at Smurfit, and found elevated levels of dioxins, furans, metals, arsenic and semi-volatile organic compunds in these areas. These findings were alarming to MT FWP and thereby prompted the state agency to conduct its own investigations into contaminant levels in fish populations living in the Clark Fork around the former mill site. In its tests, FWP detected dioxins and furans in all samples of rainbow trout and northern pike.

Fish Advisory Community Forum

FWP biologist Ladd Knotek addresses interested citizens at a community forum in November 2013.

At Monday’s CFC-hosted community forum, FWP fisheries biologist Ladd Knotek and Missoula Water Quality District Superintendent Peter Nielsen explained the extent of the known contamination in the Clark Fork River, and urged attendees to spread the word about the fish consumption advisories in the Clark Fork. Nielsen explained that—despite ample signage and publicity—many people remain unaware of the human health impacts of these substances and will continue to eat the fish they catch. He noted that dioxins and furans – two compounds formed as part of the process of pulp and paper making—are exceptionally harmful to human health, and can cause cancer in humans at high levels of exposure.

At the Coalition, we view the latest findings by FWP as yet another reason to get the Smurfit-Stone site added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites as soon as possible so that the EPA and State of Montana can implement a thorough, full-scale cleanup at the site and get rid of the dangerous contaminants currently plaguing the Clark Fork River. We expect the EPA to make its final decision regarding the listing in the spring of 2014, and will continue to monitor this critically important issue in the months to come.

In the meantime, click “Fish Consumption Guidelines” at the FWP website for tips on how to best prepare game fish to eat, and stay tuned to clarkfork.org for the latest updates.

Questions on Smurfit Stone or the fish advisory? Contact Science Director Chris Brick at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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The Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River


Whether you’re partial to the turquoise expanse of Flathead Lake, the meandering stretch of the Upper Clark Fork, or the magnificent Bitterroot River valley, it’s easy to understand why residents of western Montana care so deeply for our shared waterways. Yet our rivers and streams supply so much more than aesthetics. We depend on them for irrigation, drinking water, and recreation. Meanwhile, hundreds of species of fish, birds, and other wildlife also rely on clean, cold, connected streams for their very survival.

Whether you’re an angler, rancher, kayaker, or just someone who enjoys a good day on the river, you know – in western Montana, we have some of the best water around. And we’re also a headwaters state, meaning that our rivers in turn form the origins of the mighty Columbia River system. Not only do we have a unique relationship to our creeks and streams, but we also have a real responsibility to keep them clean, clear, and flowing while meeting the needs of riverside residents.

The State of Montana recognizes this responsibility, and in 2009 the Montana Legislature directed the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to update Montana’s State Water Plan. As part of this process, DNRC will 1) conduct an inventory of consumptive and non-consumptive uses associated with existing water rights 2) examine the impacts of drought and 3) prepare proposals for best means to satisfy existing rights and new demands in basins across the state.

Low flows took a toll on the Clark Fork in 2013

This is exciting news for the Clark Fork River. As we saw this past summer, low flows are a major problem on rivers and streams throughout the 22,000 square mile basin—particularly in the Upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot subbasins. Mainstem rivers are recording some of the lowest streamflow levels ever recorded, while some tributary streams like Lolo Creek are drying up completely. Add climate change and its expected impacts (decreased snowpack, earlier runoff, and higher stream temperatures) into the mix, and we’re looking at a scenario with disastrous implications for people, fish, and wildlife.

Most of us have an opinion about how water should be managed in Montana.  The State wants to hear those opinions, and has launched the Montana Water Supply Initiative to engage Montana citizens in developing water management strategies and recommendations in each of Montana’s major river basins.  DNRC has formed Basin Advisory Councils across the state to find out what water resource issues matter most to citizens. In the Clark Fork basin, the Clark Fork Task Force (comprised of representatives from agriculture, conservation, communities and industry) is leading the charge through a series of public scoping meetings.

The first public scoping meetings hosted by the Clark Fork Task Force were held on Oct. 14 in Missoula and Oct. 17 in Hamilton. The next meetings are scheduled for Anaconda on Oct. 24 and Kalispell on Oct. 29. At the meetings, interested individuals have the opportunity to share their concerns and ideas and help shape the new version of the State Water Plan. It’s a unique opportunity to be directly involved in an issue that impacts us all and learn more about the storied history of water rights, water use, and water management in the state of Montana.

And thanks to modern technology, now everyone in the Clark Fork basin has a chance to weigh in during the public scoping process. The Clark Fork Task Force has put together an online survey to attempt to generate interest in this process and provide a venue for people to share their ideas and opinions moving forward.

As a conservation organization, the Clark Fork Coalition strongly supports proactive, forward-thinking planning for meeting the water needs of all Clark Fork Basin water users.  In the Clark Fork basin alone, nearly 900 miles of streams are chronically or periodically dewatered – meaning there is not enough water in the streams in most or all years to support fish and wildlife. And, with climate change and development continuing to exert pressure on our river systems and compromise water availability, it becomes even more urgent to plan for the future of water use and availability in western Montana.

We know that Coalition members and supporters understand and recognize the value of clean and abundant water. Will you complete the online survey and weigh in on why responsible, proactive water use planning is important to you? If you have questions about the survey or the State Water Plan, please contact Barbara Hall at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit the DNRC Clark Fork Basin website

A Message from the Clark Fork Task Force from CNREP on Vimeo.

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Low flows on the Bitterroot River, 2013This summer’s low streamflows hit the western portion of the state and the Clark Fork basin particularly hard. It’s been a trend for several decades, but this year has been especially bleak, with images of dead fish and skinny, bony rivers showing up in many different local, regional, and even national news outlets.

Close to the CFC home office in Missoula, the media has been giving Lolo Creek the bulk of its attention. In August, KPAX’s Dennis Bragg kept viewers up to speed on the ways the Lolo Creek Complex Fire was exacerbating dry conditions on an-already struggling Lolo Creek. And, this coverage was actually his second story in two years about a dried-up Lolo Creek – in 2012, his breaking coverage of fish rescue efforts by local residents first helped draw attention to a big problem. But as he explains, this year the “need for water for fire protection created the unintended consequence of completely draining the creek.”

Lower stretches of Lolo Creek are still dry as of late September. Many news outlets in Missoula continue to track the local misfortune, and are turning to the Clark Fork Coalition to help them tell the story. CFC Project Manager Jed Whiteley partnered up with Bobbie Bartlette of the Lolo Creek Watershed Group to explain to the Missoula Independent just why it’s been so bad in recent years. As Jed explains in the article, “Lolo Creek needs a lot of help. It needs habitat restored. It needs to be cleaned up. But right now what it needs most is more water.”

Although print reporting is one way to tell a story, television captures the heart-wrenching images of belly-up fish and gravel beds much better than words ever can. Emily Foster from ABC-Fox put her camera to work in September to document the dire situation on Lolo Creek. Her simple images (like the one below) tell a stark story.

Dry Lolo Creek as captured by ABC-FoxFinally, the state of the rivers in Montana this year have captured national media attention, too. As Ben Jarvey of National Geographic notes in ‘Climate Change Spells Trouble for Anglers,’ angling restrictions on rivers in Montana are having tremendous impacts on local guides and the recreation industry. Jarvey also explores how low streamflows often translate into warmer stream temperatures, creating conditions that are less favorable to native fish – and fishing. He cites a 2013 National Wildlife Federation (NWF) report stating that “half of the major American rivers surveyed in a 2010 study experienced significant warming trends over the past 50 to 100 years.”

At the Coalition, we’re grateful that our local and national media partners are helping to get the story out about our rivers in need. And as tough as it’s become, there’s a lot we can do together to alleviate the problem — and a lot we’re already doing. When news outlets spread the word about the problem of low flow, more people understand that we need to find real fixes. This wide-ranging support helps us to rewater thirsty streams through our flow restoration program, by which we utilize voluntary, instream flow agreements to give water users incentives to reduce or cease irrigating, either permanently or at certain times. Already, we’ve returned nearly 80 cubic feet of water (nearly 36,000 gallons per minute) to creeks and streams — and you can help us do more.

Are you seeing low flows on your local creeks and streams this summer? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to see how we might be able to help. Plus, learn more at clarkfork.org.

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A combination of decreased snowpack, a warm spring, and hot temperatures have caused the Bitterroot River to hit a 30-year low in 2013. Photo: Kurt Wilson, Missoulian

This commentary by CFC Executive Director Karen Knudsen originally appeared on Montana Public Radio on August 5.

You know the old saying:  if you don’t like the weather in Montana, just wait five minutes. We’re a state that’s known for its wild weather changes.  But in recent years even our extremes have become extreme.  Our fire seasons start sooner, last longer, burn hotter, and cost more to fight.  Just two years ago the historic floods of 2011 became one of the most expensive natural disasters in state history.  And in the past month alone we’ve seen intense wildfires, and destructive flash floods – both of which have threatened lives and destroyed property.

At the center of these extremes are Montana’s vast river systems, which have taken a hard hit as severe drought, fire, and floods become the new norm. We can’t change the weather, but there is a lot we can do for our rivers, creeks, and streams that will make the impacts less severe. And right now there’s a proposal in Congress that will help.

But first, let’s talk about some of the practical, proven, and science-based measures that we know reduce the impacts of extreme weather:

Take floodplain restoration:  Restoring floodplains and riparian areas help rivers absorb the impact of floods and high run-off, thereby protecting homes and land, as well as downstream communities.

Then there’s streamflow restoration:  Returning water to thirsty streams helps ensure they have sufficient flow for fish and farmers, recreation and industry, even in late summer.

More gains can be made by repairing damaged stream banks, which reduces erosion and prevents loss of cropland and property.

And finally, there’s managing weeds and restoring native vegetation.  These actions help keep riverbanks healthy, lower stream temperatures, reduce fish mortality, and improve resiliency in the face of drought.

For years, Montana ranchers and landowners have been using measures like these to improve both their land and their bottom line.  They know these improvements are the most cost-effective insurance policies money can buy – but unfortunately there isn’t enough money to do all that needs to be done.  That’s where the so-called “Northern Rockies Headwaters Extreme Weather Mitigation” proposal comes in.  This bi-partisan provision would provide up to $30 million to landowners and communities in Montana and Idaho for smart, preventative measures that would restore, rehabilitate, and re-water our rivers and streams, helping to reduce the costly and life-threatening impacts of extreme weather.  It also ensures that funds and projects are handled locally, so that those who know their rivers best are in the driver’s seat.  Further, by targeting the headwaters of some of the largest river systems in the country, it benefits not only those of us here in the northern Rockies, but hundreds of millions of people living downstream as well.

It’s money that’s sorely needed here in Montana.  Some 900 miles of tributaries in the Clark Fork watershed alone are considered chronically de-watered – many running completely dry each summer.  The resources in this proposal would go a long way toward helping our thirsty streams.  You might be surprised that in these tough economic times Congress would propose spending any new funds – and even more surprised to find there is bipartisan support for doing so.  But this is actually a cost-saving measure, as we already pay tens to hundreds of millions of dollars each year for preventable, weather-related impacts:   Drought-ravaged croplands cost our ranching communities dearly.  Excessively-warm rivers running green with algae harm fish and aquatic life, and keep anglers and boaters away, hurting tourism.  Flash-floods put communities at risk, erode agricultural lands, and cost millions in property damage.

The thing is, even if people don’t agree on why we’re seeing more extreme weather, they do agree that it’s happening. And they agree that something must be done.  The Water Resources Development Act, of which this provision is a part, is far from perfect, but the extreme weather mitigation proposal gets a lot of things very right.  It’s smart, it’s cost-effective, it’s science-based and guaranteed effective, and it’s much-needed, as the impacts from drought, fire, and floods cost us more and more each year.  That’s something all of us can get behind.

Sure, if you don’t like Montana’s weather you could just wait five minutes for it to change.  But when it comes to weather extremes that hurt our communities, our rivers, and our economy, we have to act.  Restoring and repairing our rivers not only makes them more resilient, it makes us more resilient too.  This bill has been passed in the Senate.  The House version comes up for hearing next month.  Please contact Representative Steve Daines today to encourage him to support this common-sense, bipartisan measure.  With more extreme weather no doubt on the way, it’s the smart thing to do.

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Clark Fork River in Alberton GorgeWhat’s our most critical resource? Water.

But it’s not an infinite resource. If we want to continue to have clean and plentiful water, we need to be responsible and thoughtful about how we care for it, and come to a common understanding about how we share it.

In this vein, the long-awaited bill to approve the Water Rights Compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has been introduced at Montana’s legislative session.  This proposed Compact clarifies water rights, lays out water management systems, and addresses issues that have remained unresolved for far too long in this part of the Clark Fork watershed.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow in the House Judiciary Committee, Room 137 at 8:00 am.   The Clark Fork Coalition recognizes how much is at stake for everyone who will be affected by the Compact. We are also aware of what’s at stake for Montana’s water resources – and the communities they sustain – if this agreement fails. That’s why the Coalition is in full support of the compact and urges that it be approved this legislative session.

You can help. Please contact the House Judiciary Committee TODAY and urge them to approve HB 629. Click here to send a comment to the committee via an online form, or call (406) 444-4800 and leave a message for the committee.

Read more about the Coalition’s full position on the Water Rights Compact here.

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We need your help before Thursday.

House Bill 561 would allow developers to drill an unlimited number of groundwater wells at the expense of rivers and ranchers. It’s currently on the floor of the House of Representatives, and you can make a big difference by calling your rep today at 444-4800 to ask them to VOTE NO on House Bill 561.

Need some talking points?

This is a bill that would allow development of an unlimited amount of unregulated, unmonitored groundwater wells, with no review of the impact of these wells to other water rights holders or nearby rivers and streams. Ask your representative to do the right thing for our hard-working, irreplaceable rivers – vote no on House Bill 561.

Need to find your representative?
Use this link. Call and leave a message for your rep at 444-4800, or use this online form to submit comments.

Hear Policy Director Brianna Randall speak against House Bill 561 here:

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