27 September 2006

Fall Fishing on the Big Hole River

Walking down to Tech this morning, there were a bunch of mulie does and fawns along the trail just north of Kennedy Elementary School. The cool fall weather stimulates all creatures to prepare for winter, and the mulies are seeking out the best forage while they can. I am so thankful for Kriss Douglass and the other local heroes that put an end to ATV traffic on Big Butte.
Yesterday I fished the Big Hole and came home with a sore arm. Usually I fish only a few hours and am content with two or three larger fish, but yesterday I was a glutton. With not another angler's boot track or a boat in sight all day long, it was as if these fish had never seen an artificial fly. It was a very windy day, blowing down canyon which made casting upstream difficult. Usually I adapt to those conditions by pitching the fly downstream with some slack line. For some reason, however, I kept missing the fish that were taking in this manner. And so I sucked it up, increased the line speed, and the combination of 5X tippet and #12 yellow humpy did OK when the gusts were not TOO strong. Sometimes the wind blew hard enough to lift spray from the river's surface and to push me off balance. Still, the warm sun made for a pleasant day.
I fished the swift waters of the canyon, carefully working back and forth across the river so as to hit all the good little pockets amid the boulders.
There were lots of smallish brown trout in the slack water along the edges, but the larger browns and rainbow trout were in pockets and surprisingly fast runs from one to two feet deep. The takes were very delicate, and most times I could not see an actual rise--just a head slurping the fly from slightly beneath the surface. The fish I caught were generally 10 to 15 inches long, but a few nicer ones came to hand. It is delightful and a little unusual (for me) to catch larger fish on dry flies, so I made the most of it--fishing from 9 in the morning until nearly 4 in the afternoon.
RolyTheDog had a great time, swimming back and forth across the swift waters, climbing out on the occasional boulder to bask like a seal in the sun, and trying to inspect every fish I caught. She is very good at staying behind me and swimming only in waters that I've already fished. Rarely does she get so excited while inspecting a fish about to be released that she gets her feet tangled in the line.
Several larger fish turned out from their station into fast water and headed down river. Usually I end up losing such fish even before they run me into the backing, as if they get much slack it is easy for them to shake a barbless hook. Also, a hook wears a bit in its hole, and the longer you play a fish the larger the hole wears and the easier the fish escapes--especially with no barb to hold the hook in place. But no matter, as I was not out to kill a lot of fish.
One of the last fish I caught was a strong rainbow of about 14 inches. It turned from its pocket and raced down the swiftest water toward a hole several hundred feet downstream. I wanted to land this fish, and so (foolishly) tried to move across the swift run to where I might land the fish against the gravelly shore. Alas I slipped on a slick boulder in three feet of water and took a good dunking. Surprisingly, though, when I found my footing the fish was still on; I landed it and killed it for supper.. This made for cold fishing, as the sky had clouded over, the wind continued to blow, and I was soaked. I fished for another half-hour or so, caught and killed one more fish of the same size, and called it a day. Both fish I killed were stuffed with nymphs, including several large, black salmonfly nymphs.
Well, as George Grant liked to say, "We don't catch fish because we are good anglers; we catch fish because they are there!"
Life is good, enjoying these lovely Indian summer days from my home in Butte, Montana.

25 September 2006

Big Hole River Diversion Dams

Today, I sat in on the meeting of the Mile High Conservation District Meeting (Butte). Last week, the Beaverhead County Conservation District met in Dillon (I did not attend this meeting, and am relying primarily on notes from Mike Bias). Per Montana law, the Conservation Districts ruled on the alleged violations of the state’s Streambed Preservation Act. We should note that Butte conservationists George Grant and Tony Schoonen (both intimately connected with the founding of the Big Hole Foundation and our local Trout Unlimited chapter) helped create the Streambed Preservation Act in 1975. This law is enforced through local Conservation District committees. To do work in the streambed, an irrigator must first obtain a 310 Permit.

There were five alleged violations of the Streambed Preservation Act. They were made known to the Conservation District by individuals who filed the “Official Complaint Form 274.” The five included one large diversion dam built near the downstream end of Maiden Rock; two near the Meriwether Ranch access bridge above Melrose; one near the turn off to the Twin Bridges road just below Melrose; and one near the Burma Road by the public bridges at the turn-off from Glen to Notchbottom.

These diversion dams were large structures built primarily of gravel pushed up by operating heavy equipment in the river bed. Several included large trees and in some cases the trees were anchored into the bank. In at least one case, the diversion dam was impassable to boats. In all cases, the large dams were intended to divert more water into irrigation ditches.

It is important to note here that the legality of the dams themselves is the point in question. No one is questioning the alleged violators’ water rights, or whether the alleged violators are taking an amount of water exceeding their legal right.

The Conservation Districts ruled that in four of the five complaints, a violation had indeed occurred. When a Conservation District deems that a violation has occurred, it may require the violator to fix the problem and may fine the violator up to $500 for the initial violation, and up to $500 per day for an ongoing violation.

Although the Beaverhead County district agreed that the dam near the Burma Road had been “built too big—too high and wide, and with an added wing dam” not specified in the original 310 Permit, this structure was ruled “no violation” because it could be covered by a maintenance permit previously granted to the irrigator.

The Mile High district found that the Maiden Rock dam was built with an excessive amount of material that very likely violated the 25 cubic yard limit imposed by DEQ. To move more material than this, the irrigator is supposed to apply for a 318 Permit. No such permit was applied for. Despite the apparent violation, it seems that no action will be required of this irrigator—primarily because the dam was not extended in length beyond its historic endpoint. It was not at all clear how or why a violation of the 318 Permit should be overlooked, although as in the other dams cited in the complaints, this one was constructed by “a new contractor unfamiliar with the rules.”

Both Districts agreed that the two dams near the Meriwether Bridge were clear violations. Both dams were constructed by the same irrigator. The primary violations lay in blocking river travel (i.e. in extending a dam clear across the river channel) and in anchoring large trees into the bank to enhance the dam. The violator was notified to reduce the structure in accordance with their 310 Permit. To date, however, only one tree has been removed because the irrigator cannot get to the other one with the equipment that he has. “High water will take care of the other one,” according to the Mile High district. The violator had been asked to reduce the size of their structure well before the 274 Complaints were filed, but refused to do so. But once the complaints were received and the violator was notified by the Conservation Districts, he became contrite and so no fine will be levied.

The Beaverhead district ruled that the irrigator violated their 310 Permit in constructing the dam below Melrose. The permit specified that it was to be a wing dam extending ¼ of the width of the channel, but the dam had been built nearly the full width of the river. Also, the irrigator had illegally installed a tree into the diversion structure. Furthermore, the irrigator’s permit has been expired for 16 years. Because boats could still pass by this diversion, it was not seen as a serious problem. The violator will be ordered to reduce the size of the diversion and to remove the tree. No fine will be levied.

Prominent in both Conservation District meetings was a reprimand by the chair of those who had made the alleged violations a public issue by talking with newspaper reporters and writing editorial pieces. The committee chairs were seriously pissed about this because as a public issue “It makes agriculture look bad.” It seems hard for the agricultural community to fathom why such violations are a public issue. The State of Montana, however, manages the waters and fish as a Public Trust. This Public Trust is of great interest to thousands of anglers, hunters, and other outdoor recreationists. When we see large diversion dams that block travel on the river and harm the streambed and aquatic life, the conservationist public is upset. After all, it is the public’s natural resources that are being damaged.

The Conservation Districts would like aggrieved anglers, outfitters, and conservation groups to find ways to fund improved diversion structure rather than resorting to the hammer of law. It seems that there are several potential sources of funding – including Montana FWP, Big Hole Watershed Committee, and DNRC monies – and it is up to the complainants to help raise the needed funds. The idea is that if irrigators had lots of money to construct efficient diversion structures, then they would not need to resort to “emergency” actions that violate their 310 Permit. Efficient diversion structures include permanent dams, concrete road barriers, and large metal plates. Both the concrete barriers and metal plates must be installed and removed on a seasonal basis.

Two other options are available to anglers, outfitters, and conservation groups that would like to reduce 310 Permit violations that damage public resources.

The first option is to amend the Streambed Preservation Act. When the law was passed, the conservation community had to make many concessions. The Conservation Districts were given wide discretion in interpreting the nature of violations and the penalties for violations. Individual irrigators were given a loophole for “emergency actions” that “safeguard life or property, including growing crops.” A tighter law with less leeway and fewer loopholes would be more protective of the Public Trust. The best strategy here would be to work with a lawyer to draft the language for the amendment, and then to lobby local legislators to carry and support the bill.

The second option is to reinstate DNRC’s decision that the Big Hole River is chronically dewatered. As you will recall, this is the action (along with the pending ESA listing for grayling) that brought the Big Hole Watershed Committee into existence in 1995. Because the watershed committee has not dealt with irrigation problems on the lower and middle river, this situation led to the spasm of 310 Permit violations this year. Several agency personnel I have talked with are fed up with the low flows on the lower Big Hole River, and encourage reviving the “Chronically Dewatered” designation. Among other things, this would force irrigators to install measuring devices on their head gates. As explained to me by a state agency person, the DNRC has prepared for adjudication by calculating how much water irrigators actually need based on their crop acreage. Often times, irrigators take and use far more water than their crops need or can effectively use. In one case, an irrigator with an 8 cfs diversion and a 5 cfs water right reduced his usage to 1.4 cfs. I am having an ongoing conversation with some state agency folks, and can let you know more about this option in a few days.

The next step is up to the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Big Hole Foundation. Some conservation goals require conservationists to lead and not merely be led.

22 September 2006

Big Hole River, Dewatering, Big Hole Watershed Committee

The Big Hole Watershed Committee’s chair has taken me to task for publicly criticizing the group, stating that “cooperation is the key.”

Problem is, the lock is rusty.

For many years, I avidly supported the watershed committee. Some recent failings changed my opinion.

Conrad Burns has given the group more than $1 million in earmark appropriations. Because this is our tax money, the group deserves scrutiny for how well it lives up to its public responsibilities.

In 2004, spring weather made it look as if we were in for drought. The watershed committee reacted by suspending its Drought Management Plan. “Hmmm…” I thought, “We’re in a drought. And they suspended the Drought Management Plan. What’s wrong with this picture?”

Flows at Wisdom – a critical reach for grayling – plummeted to 7 cfs, far below the 160 recommended by fisheries biologists. An entire year class of fish was lost. When the Big Hole Foundation helped secure nearly a million dollars in drought relief, flows soared over 200.

This past June – despite normal rain and snowfall to that time – flows at Wisdom dove below 30 cfs. When front page headlines brought public attention to the issue, flows recovered to about 160. (There are outstanding instances of individual ranchers cooperating with Fish, Wildlife & Parks to save grayling. Last week I was on a tour that included a large diversion near Wisdom. There was just a trickle of water, barely enough for a cow to drink. Normally, this ditch takes half the river.)

There are also problems with the waterhshed committee’s governance structure. All real power currently rests with the watershed committee’s four officers. Of these four, only one represents conservation interests. As a group that ostensibly manages a public resource important to thousands of anglers, hunters, and other recreationists, this is surely a case of “taxation without representation.”

As a group with professional staff funded by hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, the watershed committee might do better if it were more inclusive of conservation interests. Stakeholders with a critical voice – such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Center for Biological Diversity – have been rigorously excluded. The group’s original facilitator, Matt McKinney, says this was a big mistake. So let’s get some oil on that rusty lock, and put the cooperation-key to work.


Note regarding illegal water diversions that triggered this thread: The photo above is of a diversion dam that was greatly enlarged by a landowner who did not have the requisite "310 Permit" required by the state of Montana. This is but one example of about six such projects by various irrigators. The Beaverhead County Conservation District met yesterday and generally agreed that the example in the photo (and several others) were violations. However, the CD assessed no real penalties and will require merely that the violators reduce the size of their diversion dams.

06 September 2006

Dewatering the Big Hole River - trout fishing; conservation

This summer, the Big Hole River has closed to angling. The trigger for this closure was low flows—for example, flows falling below 150 cubic feet per second at Melrose. When the river closes, anglers lose their sport while guides & outfitters lose their living.

Though we had good rainfall and snow pack coming into the summer, it has been very dry and hot since early June. Early on, the city of Butte mandated every-other-day watering since much of our water comes from the Big Hole River. Certainly, it behooves everyone to conserve water.

Yet it seems that some ranchers are not conserving water. In fact, recently several ranchers have constructed large irrigation diversion dams in the Melrose, Glen, and Notchbottom areas of the river. It requires large equipment to construct such dams, as you can see from the attached aerial photograph.

The two large diversion dams in the photograph are located just below Melrose. As you can see from the photo, these two diversions take a great measure of the river’s flow. The same is true of the new diversions constructed below Glen and near Notchbottom.

[In the photo, note that the main flow of the river is from the upper left to the lower left. The first diversion dam diverts water to the first irrigation ditch on the center right. The second diversion diverts water to the ditch on the lower right.]

To operate heavy equipment in the river requires a “310 Permit” – a permit granted by the local Conservation District. Complaints have been filed with the appropriate Conservation District regarding new diversion dams. So far, it appears that these dams were constructed without permits. If so, they are illegal.

If these diversion dams were permitted by the Conservation District, then shame on them for permitting projects so obviously harmful to the river and its fish. In a year when the river is closed to anglers and outfitters, and when the rare Big Hole grayling is edging toward extinction, everyone should be conserving water.

Where is the Big Hole Watershed Committee in this picture? Supposedly, this rancher-dominated group exists to “Foster the ability of local individuals and groups to create effective solutions to local problems; Seek long-term solutions based on sound information; and Serve as a responsible planning entity for developing a coordinated resource plan for the Watershed.” However, the watershed committee seems to be taking no action regarding these harmful and perhaps illegal diversion dams.

As we approach Butte conservationist George Grant’s 100th birthday, we should also remember that George – along with other local conservationists such as Tony Schoonen and Bob Lieneman – helped to create the Streambed Preservation Act in 1975. Let’s honor this legacy by maintaining the minimal flows that fish need and by halting the construction of harmful diversion dams.