Montana’s 66th legislative session is officially over! As with any legislative session, 2019 was not without its challenges, unforeseen obstacles, and last-minute dealings, but all things considered, the session was a success in terms of the Clark Fork Coalition’s priority issues. Here’s how things shook out on key pieces of legislation affecting the health of the Clark Fork watershed:
AIS Prevention Funding: The disastrous impact that aquatic invasive species (AIS) could have on Montana’s waters cannot be overstated. Montana citizens and our elected officials understand that AIS threaten not only our lakes and rivers but our economy, which depends on clean water. That’s why the goal of implementing a long-term, well-funded AIS detection and prevention program was front and center this legislative session. Enter House Bill 411. This piece of legislation truly represents a compromise approach to AIS funding that equally distributes the funding burden across user groups that would be most impacted by the spread of aquatic invasive species without overly saddling any one particular group. The bill also creates a sustainable funding mechanism that does not rely on general fund dollars. Hats off to bill sponsor Willis Curdy (D), Missoula, and the Montana legislature for working hard to push HB 411 across the finish line.
Instream Flows: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ (FWP) instream flow leasing program has helped numerous dewatered streams across Montana, including several in the Clark Fork watershed. Similar to CFC’s water leasing activities, this program works by allowing FWP to negotiate voluntary agreements with willing landowners to reduce water use and help keep streams wet, while still meeting agricultural needs. It also gives FWP the limited authority to permanently change its own water rights to instream flow on certain key, stream reaches. Unfortunately, FWP’s authority expire was set to expire in June of 2019. Senate Bill 247, sponsored by Jill Cohenour (D), sought to extend this valuable program into the future. CFC and our partner groups fought hard to make sure this program remained an intact, viable tool for FWP to restore dewatered streams, and after some last-minute scares, we were successful! The program has been extended until 2029.
Stream Gages: In Montana, our water supplies are limited and precious. Montana’s water users all agree that real-time data on stream flows and temperatures is crucial to ensuring that we can properly manage our water resources. Unfortunately, the convoluted funding system for Montana’s stream gages has meant that certain gages have been suspended or even eliminated due to a seasonal lack of funding. Senate Bill 32, sponsored by Jon Sesso (D), Butte, will establish a stream gage oversight working group to tackle this funding problem and make sure our stream gages continue to provide the important information we need to keep our creeks and rivers flowing.
Water Quality: There were several legislative attempts to pass bills aimed at weakening Montana’s water quality laws, making it easier to obtain a license to pollute. The good news is, these bills were met with strong opposition from Montana citizens, landowners, watershed groups, fish and wildlife advocates, and others. In the end, no major changes to Montana’s water quality laws survived the session. Thanks again to our partner groups and our allies in the legislature for making sure Montana’s water quality laws remain strong.
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