17 May 2006

The Devolution of the Big Hole Watershed Committee

As the expression goes, "There is no more devout Christian than a reformed whore..." Growing up, I often heard my grandfather say this. He said it to explain fiercly zealous anti-smokers who had once themselves been smokers. He said it to explain former alcoholics who would not allow a drop to be consumed in their presence. And he said it to explain my good Baptist stepmother.

And now here I stand, a reformed watershed committee addict.

Until a few years ago, I was a strong proponent of Watershed Committees. These groups -- what Peter Lavigne calls "the buzzword of the '90s" -- were usually based on 4 guiding principles: (1) A strong sense of place; (2) Partnership among local stakeholders; (3) A desire to address legal challenges through compromise instead of litigation; and (4) A governance structure built on consensus and/or collaboration.

Yes, I was addicted to the watershed committee as a drug. On the Big Hole River of southwest Montana, I thought a watershed committee could save an imperiled fish: the rare and beautiful fluvial Arctic grayling. In all the lower 48 states, the Big Hole is the last home for a native, wild, and self-sustaining population of this elegant cousin of the trout clan. By 1990, it was evident that Big Hole grayling were in serious trouble. They were in trouble because ranchers took water from the river to grow hay, and there was not enough water left in the river for grayling to survive.

I thought that ranchers, anglers, and conservation groups could sit down at the table together and become a grassroots force to restore the dwindling grayling population. Ranchers were interested in sitting down because of two threats: (1) the threat of the Big Hole being declared a "chronically dewatered stream;" and (2) the threat of a federal Endangered Species Act listing. These two threats were a big hammer poised to strike the ranchers' crystal chalice: private property rights in general; and water rights in particular.

From 1995 until recently, it seemed promising. The Big Hole Watershed Committee set minimum flow targets in a Drought Management Plan and took a number of steps -- including drilling wells as off stream watering sites for cattle -- that were beneficial. The watershed committee even partnered with a conservation group -- the Big Hole Foundation -- to take on issues such as land use planning and restrictions on commercial outfitters.

Come May of 2004, the Big Hole Watershed Committee simply decided to ignore (i.e. suspend) the Drought Management Plan. Ranchers were panicked by dry hot spring weather and drought predictions. Irrigators proceeded to take all the water they could. Their timing could not have been worse, since this was the period when grayling fry were emerging from the redds. So the riverbed went dry and the young grayling died; meanwhile cattle were standing hock-deep in irrigation water pulled from the river. This, despite pleas by a state fisheries biologist that grayling needed 160 cfs during the critical time of May spawning and emergence. As a consequence of the watershed committee’s negligence, a total year class of grayling was lost.

At about the same time, the Big Hole Watershed Committee began moving toward incorporating as a 501(c)3. Initially, this was a move cautiously supported by many of the watershed committee members, including the Big Hole Foundation. After all, the watershed committee was increasingly interested in activities of central interest to the agricultural community, activities such as spraying weeds.

With the shift to a 501(c)3, however, came a huge shift in governance structure. For its first 10 years, the Big Hole Watershed Committee governed by consensus. A Steering Committee composed of 4 members -- 2 from ag interests and 2 from conservation interests -- developed the agenda. This agenda was then presented to the committee members at monthly meetings or in subcommittees. The members discussed and questioned and argued over the agenda items, and often insisted on significant changes. Only when the entire committee came to a consensus was the Steering Committee then empowered to act.

How this has changed. Today, the Steering Committee meets privately and sets the agenda. The agenda, however, is now presented to the members as fait accompli. The most recent example is a grant proposal submitted to a private foundation. Members -- including the member representing the Big Hole Foundation -- were never told the details of the proposal. No copy of a draft (or final) proposal was provided to the members. And no discussion was held with the membership to help shape the goals or other details of the proposal.

The Steering Committee, it seems, has become an autocratic body acting in its own narrow self-interest. The membership exists merely to confer legitimacy on the Steering Committee's decisions. Napoleon has placed the crown on his own head.

The Steering Committee -- one should probably no longer even speak of a Big Hole Watershed Committee -- no longer is concerned about the one thing grayling need most: water. The watershed committee's ground rules used to state that the group would, "Seek longterm solutions based on sound information."

In the early months of 2006, the watershed committee refused to consider altering its very minimal – and biologically unsound – Drought Management Plan to incorporate new scientifically based "wetted perimeter" flow targets. These new targets were developed by fisheries biologists and are stated in the Conservation Candidate with Assurances Agreement. This agreement will be instituted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service with individual ranchers to protect them from the hammer of the Endangered Species Act if and when Big Hole grayling are listed.

By sticking with politically expedient Drought Management Targets and refusing to recognized scientific standards, the Big Hole Watershed Committee has proven that it is not serious about grayling recovery. This would not be so bad if the watershed committee would simply admit that it would be happier if grayling simply went away. Instead, the watershed committee postures over the need to "prevent grayling from being listed." And, through this posturing, the watershed committee is also making a grab at controling large sums of money that will be needed to lease water, improve irrigation efficiency, restore damaged habitat, and the other measures that grayling restoration will require.

In the meantime, a Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fisheries biologist has stated that there are only about 1,000 grayling left in the entire Big Hole watershed. Just a decade ago, the numbers may have been 10 times the current figure. Scientists say they know what must be done to restore grayling. But the will to act has been lost as our conservative federal government continues to gut Endangered Species protection and funding for the Fish & Wildlife Service. And without the federal hammer, the Big Hole Watershed Committee has lost its incentive to act on behalf of grayling.

So here I stand, delivering a devout warning to any who would see watershed committees as a panacea for environmental action. With hindsight, the devolution of the Big Hole Watershed Committee might have been prevented had it remained a non-incorporated body that had to reflect the interests of everyone at the table. Don't let this happen in your watershed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you rock, man. i learned about the watershed committee just recently and was starting to get involved, they were raising money for projects and trying to get senator testor to give them money. then i learend how this group works and its all bo-o-o-gus. they don't care about grayling or keeping water in the river for trout. its just about ranching and hay for a few special ones. look at the wise river last year it was dry and the big wise river irrigator is a watershed committee ranch.