Saturday, March 6, 2010

Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting

They're called water meisters, water masters; judges appointed to watersheds in Montana to adjudicate water rights for all time. They have the tedious job to read through all the historical documentation, interpret photographs, and interview land users; quiz attorneys. Ten years might be too soon for ONE river to be settled, but it all may to be late, in the end, to save my county's economy and way of life.

This morning's "round table" session was all fiery with shouts of exclamation, spittle flying and fists pounding. Apparently down river land owners need greener scenery and have challenged upper river users for the water. Here's the rub: it's not farmer against farmer, it's recreation against production. Here's the precedent: first in time, first in service. Was a claim filed in Indian territory or Montana state? Did the land owner who filed in 1880 ALSO file in 1972? What indicates abandonment versus utilization?

One farmer and rancher has $100,000 set aside for his legal team, another figures he's got half a million already sunk in. You see, once water's gone, it's gone forever and with it the rivers, ponds, hay meadows, grazing pasture (and the good beef it makes), and high quality grain. If no one is making money on the land, there's no one to pay taxes for schools, hospitals, roads, emergency and protective services. No money to plow snow or rescue a lost hiker.

Additionally, there's the lost dollars that a family would have spend on equipment, building materials, fuel and parts, groceries and clothes, movies and ball games; it's the children they'd put in school (Montana pays per head), and the church and civic activities they'd volunteer for. All of this leaves us when land moves out of production. We live in a rain shadow here on the Rocky Mountain Front and depend on annual snow melt to get us beyond our 12" of precipitation.We lose irrigation rights and we'll lose the productivity of the land.

Our area also captures visitor dollars with our large game varieties, water fowl and upland game. Much of the stewardship of the wildlife has come from farmers and ranchers who winter the animals. Without stewards, will our game population be interesting enough to attract anyone?

What amount of money is too much to spend on a legal team? The way things are going, it looks as if some will go broke doing it, but they'd rather go broke in a manner of their choosing than watch their grass dry up and their cattle head down the road to market. "Dead or broke," says the rancher, "that's how I'll be when it's all said and done."

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