USDA Investing Millions in Wildfire Mitigation and Water Quality Projects Through Joint Chiefs’ Partnership

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will invest nearly $32 million this year to mitigate wildfire risk, improve water quality and restore healthy forest ecosystems in 24 states and Puerto Rico.  More than $690,000 of that funding will support the Capital 360 forestry project in Montana.

Since 2013, USDA has invested $176 million in 56 Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership projects, which focus on areas where public forests and grasslands intersect with privately-owned lands.

“Through Joint Chiefs, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) works with agricultural producers and forest landowners to improve forest health using available Farm Bill conservation programs, and the Forest Service enhances forest health on public lands — stitching together a larger footprint of healthy ecosystems in priority areas,” said Tom Hedt, NRCS acting state conservationist in Montana

Along with mitigating fire risk, Joint Chiefs’ projects work to improve water quality by restoring healthy forests and grasslands.

In Montana, the funding will support the Capital 360 project in the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest. The Capital 360 effort builds on prior successful, smaller-scale fuels reduction projects to improve forest health in the Upper Tenmile Creek watershed and portions of the Prickly Pear, which supply water to Helena and East Helena.

Private woodland owners in these project areas may be eligible for financial assistance from the NRCS to perform forest conservation practices on their land. Contact a local USDA Service Center to learn more.

Montana Water Policy Updates – Ditches, CSKT, Adjudication and More

Montana water ranching updatesThe following update is taken from our Land Use & Environment Committee meetings during Mid Year in Miles City last month, courtesy of Krista Lee Evans, Blake Creek Project Management. Krista was generous enough to provide our members an update via video conference using Google’s Hangout On Air product. Our ranchers were able to see and listen to Krista’s update even though she wasn’t able to physically be in Miles City with us. It’s great to see ranchers embracing technology, which allows us to open more doors for better communication.

Listen to Krista’s presentation and a following Q&A session on the podcast at the end of this post.

Ditches – Rep Connell is continuing to push for a change in ditch rights.  This issue was in front of the Water Policy Interim Committee as HJ 26.  A recent Colorado Supreme Court decision was discussed in detail. The decision provided for a three-pronged test that if met a property owner could move a ditch with consent of the ditch easement owner.  AGAI and Montana Water Resources Association both opposed the approach of trying to “balance the property rights” due to the fact that as dominant estate owners, we have purchased the easement right and there should be no “balancing”.  I also suggested that if property owners do not want a ditch on their property then they should buy unencumbered property.

CSKTCSKT has filed a lawsuit in federal district court stating that they not only own the water rights for the water going through the reservation but they own the water.  This will be a significant issue in the court and we need to pay attention.  There are some interested in continuing negotiations with the tribe but there are others that are unwilling to continue negotiations.  The tribe has stated publically that they would still move forward with the negotiated compact but they are not willing to make significant changes (other than dealing with the management of the irrigation project).

The water policy interim committee has created a work group to review the model used during negotiations.  The work group will report back to WPIC with any questions, concerns, or suggestions.

Adjudication Funding – The Water Court and DNRC came to the Environmental Quality Council meeting outlining the future of the adjudication.  The examination is done.  This is a huge accomplishment and was completed a year ahead of the statutory deadline.  The Water Court did issue an order for reexamination of the verified basins.  In order to complete the adjudication through the first decree phase in all basins as well as decree enforcement support from the DNRC to the Water Court additional funding will be needed.  The two entities are going to request $14.6 Million.  They did not disclose where they want to get the money.

State Water Plan – Different basins have put together their proposals based on different interest groups input.  As this comes into a final statewide plan, we need to be fully engaged.  There are significant suggestions in these various basin plans including:

  1. Having a professional staff of water commissioners that are under the control of the water court or DNRC.
  2. Requiring water quality monitoring at all stream gauging stations.
  3. Requiring a minimum instream flow
  4. Requiring statewide measurement devices.
  5. Prioritizing the types of beneficial uses.
  6. Requiring a change of use to go from flood to sprinkler.

Water Court Role – The Water Court is having multiple discussions across the state discussing expanding the role of the water court.  Expansions being discussed include having the water court handle all appeals from DNRC rather than the district court, having all water commissioners managed by the water court, and multiple other items.  I would suggest that the water court needs to finish its existing job of completing the adjudication before it takes on any additional responsibilities.

For more information about how MSGA represents Montana ranchers on water policy issues, please contact our Director of Natural Resources, Jay Bodner, at jay@mtbeef.org.