Latest water fight in West pits Montana and Wyoming struggling over dwindling water supplies

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:26 am
By: News On 6

LOVELL, Wyo. (AP) _ Sandy gullies and endless sage brush offer little hint of the watersports mecca once envisioned for this small town near the Montana line.

Back when the Bighorn River flowed strong out of the distant Wind River mountains, it backed up 72-miles from the Yellowtail Dam in Montana south to the outskirts of Lovell _ a man-made lake that once drew almost half a million visitors annually.

But drought has choked the Bighorn going on eight years, chopping 30 miles off Bighorn Lake in recent summers and prompting tourists to vacation elsewhere. And now a U.S. senator from Montana _ anxious to tap the reservoir to feed a downstream trout fishery _ could crush Lovell's recreational aspirations for good.

Flexing his newfound muscle as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrat Max Baucus has introduced legislation that could further deplete the lake. It would force the federal Bureau of Reclamation to ensure a steady flow of water out of Yellowtail Dam, drought notwithstanding.

The bill, which Lovell officials say would effectively doom Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, stakes out yet another front in the water wars breaking out across the Northern Plains.

As the worst dry spell since the 1930s shows no signs of abating, many states are squabbling with each other and federal officials.

Nebraska and Kansas are wrangling for control of irrigation water from the Republican River. South Dakota has demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers stop drawing down reservoirs in the state because it is hurting recreational fishing. Barge companies along the Missouri River in Iowa are demanding the Corps release more water so their vessels can operate.

And Wyoming and Montana are fighting two more water battles in the Tongue and Powder river basins. Montana officials claim Wyoming is diverting too much water from the rivers before they cross the state line, sparking a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit.

Also, intensive coal-bed methane production on the Wyoming side has Montana officials worried over the prospect of poor-quality water flowing into their state.

The disputes share a common thread: If there was sufficient precipitation, they would not be happening, said Brian Fuchs with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

``The biggest thing with this is the duration,'' Fuchs said. ``Look at it in an economic sense. If you are budgeted to run 100 percent and for the past several years you've only had 80 percent, you've got to make cuts somewhere. Over the years it has accumulated to the point where a multitude of problems came up.''

In the case of the Bighorn, trout fishers on the Montana side and recreational boating interests from Wyoming have been forced to grapple over ever-dwindling volumes of water.

Along the Montana stretch of the Bighorn, less water means fewer trout and fewer anglers, who once contributed some $30 million annually to the local economy. In Wyoming, it means no water at the Kane boat launch near Lovell, no water downstream at the Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch, and little hope for new tourists if the status quo prevails.

That's a bitter pill for Lovell residents, such as 84-year-old Hermina ``Minnie'' Gams, who was among 73 families forced to give up 30,870 acres of farmland in the 1960s to make way for Yellowtail Dam and Bighorn Canyon recreation area.

``The only thing that I think will help is more snow and more rain,'' she said. ``I don't think anything that mankind can do will help it.''

But to the extent that water can be reallocated, for now Montana appears to have the upper hand. Wyoming's all-Republican Congressional delegation was on the losing side in the last election, while Baucus, now in his fifth term as senator, saw his influence rise.

Nevertheless, Wyoming's leaders promise a fight for the 2,300 people of Lovell. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal warned that Baucus ``is opening Pandora's box'' _ setting a precedent where a state's political power trumps regional cooperation over water rights.

The area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, Dan Jewell, said that while the drought holds, it boils down to a simple choice: less water in the river or less water in the lake.

Even Lovell's supporters, such as Big Horn County, Wyo., Commissioner Keith Grant, acknowledge the trout fishery has a bigger economic impact given the hobbled state of the recreation area.

But he points to promises made to Lovell by federal officials dating back to before the construction of Yellowtail Dam. More than 2 million visitors a year were once projected. In recent years, there have been less than 10 percent of that number.

``They made those promises and they need to come out and do the full development like they promised,'' he said. ``If they're not going to do it, they should give the land back and it can be put back into productive use.''