Ravalli County Coverage

Feb 21, 2013 8:24 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Ravalli County will fight USFS over water rights

HAMILTON - Ravalli County commissioners will file an objection to the U.S. Forest Service seeking water rights on Blodgett Creek.

The application, which has already received preliminary approval from the state, is once more putting pressure on the issue of resource management in the Bitterroot.

The Bitterroot National Forest already has water rights on some Bitterroot streams, but it'ss the move to secure a junior water right on Blodgett Creek that's erupted into the latest management conflict.

USFS officials say the water right, allowed under a 2007 compact with the state, protects fish habitat and would be a "non-consumptive use" without interfering with older water rights for farms and ranches.

County commissioners are not only suspicious of the reasons for the application, but critical of the methodology used to calculate the water right, the so-called "wet perimeter" formula measuring water in the streambed and the adjacent banks.

Those measurements are based on one year, and commissioners say they are baffled why the state wouldn't use historic measurements.

"You're saying that 22 years of recorded history can be surpassed by measuring one time, one year, and making a claim of how much water has flowed on average for the last 40 years?" Commissioner J.R. Iman asked.

"The way the methodology works it just simply develops a relationship between discharge and the amount of bank that is wet. And so it is a simple relationship between those two principles. And on a wet year, a dry year, it doesn't really matter. It's that you capture the different stages that represent these multiple points," Montana DNRC hydrologist Ethan Mace said.

Commissioners also remain frustrated over the Forest Service protecting fish habitat when they don't feel enough has been done to stop fire damage.

"To me, the job of the Forest Service when it was created was to protect our watershed, and if anything work to increase it. And yet they're burning the snot out of it," Commissioner Suzy Foss said.

Although some speakers were equally critical of the water right application, others defended the Forest Service's action and scolded commissioners for fighting the with the federal land managers instead of supporting fish habitat protection.

Commissioners voted unanimously to file a formal objection to the Forest Service water right for Blodgett and Laird Creeks, although it remains to be seen whether they can find the right points to stop what it's already allowed under the water agreement between the feds and the state.

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