Montana’s Extreme Weather

Aug 6, 2013

You know the old saying:  if you don’t like the weather in Montana, just wait five minutes. We’re a state that’s known for its wild weather changes.  But in recent years even our extremes have become extreme.  Our fire seasons start sooner, last longer, burn hotter, and cost more to fight.  Just two years ago the historic floods of 2011 became one of the most expensive natural disasters in state history.  And in the past month alone we’ve seen intense wildfires, and destructive flash floods - both of which have threatened lives and destroyed property.

At the center of these extremes are Montana’s vast river systems, which have taken a hard hit as severe drought, fire, and floods become the new norm. We can’t change the weather, but there is a lot we can do for our rivers, creeks, and streams that will make the impacts less severe. And right now there’s a proposal in Congress that will help.

But first, let’s talk about some of the practical, proven, and science-based measures that we know reduce the impacts of extreme weather:

Take floodplain restoration:  Restoring floodplains and riparian areas help rivers absorb the impact of floods and high run-off, thereby protecting homes and land, as well as downstream communities.

Then there’s streamflow restoration:  Returning water to thirsty streams helps ensure they have sufficient flow for fish and farmers, recreation and industry, even in late summer.

More gains can be made by repairing damaged stream banks, which reduces erosion and prevents loss of cropland and property.

And finally, there’s managing weeds and restoring native vegetation.  These actions help keep riverbanks healthy, lower stream temperatures, reduce fish mortality, and improve resiliency in the face of drought.

For years, Montana ranchers and landowners have been using measures like these to improve both their land and their bottom line.  They know these improvements are the most cost-effective insurance policies money can buy – but unfortunately there isn’t enough money to do all that needs to be done.

That’s where the so-called “Northern Rockies Headwaters Extreme Weather Mitigation” proposal comes in.  This bi-partisan provision would provide up to $30 million to landowners and communities in Montana and Idaho for smart, preventative measures that would restore, rehabilitate, and re-water our rivers and streams, helping to reduce the costly and life-threatening impacts of extreme weather.  It also ensures that funds and projects are handled locally, so that those who know their rivers best are in the driver’s seat.  Further, by targeting the headwaters of some of the largest river systems in the country, it benefits not only those of us here in the northern Rockies, but hundreds of millions of people living downstream as well.

It’s money that’s sorely needed here in Montana.  Some 900 miles of tributaries in the Clark Fork watershed alone are considered chronically de-watered – many running completely dry each summer.  The resources in this proposal would go a long way toward helping our thirsty streams.

You might be surprised that in these tough economic times Congress would propose spending any new funds – and even more surprised to find there is bipartisan support for doing so.  But this is actually a cost-saving measure, as we already pay tens to hundreds of millions of dollars each year for preventable, weather-related impacts:   Drought-ravaged croplands cost our ranching communities dearly.  Excessively-warm rivers running green with algae harm fish and aquatic life, and keep anglers and boaters away, hurting tourism.  Flash-floods put communities at risk, erode agricultural lands, and cost millions in property damage.

The thing is, even if people don’t agree on why we’re seeing more extreme weather, they do agree that it’s happening. And they agree that something must be done.

The Water Resources Development Act, of which this provision is a part, is far from perfect, but the extreme weather mitigation proposal gets a lot of things very right.  It’s smart, it’s cost-effective, it’s science-based and guaranteed effective, and it’s much-needed, as the impacts from drought, fire, and floods cost us more and more each year.  That’s something all of us can get behind.

Sure, if you don’t like Montana’s weather you could just wait five minutes for it to change.  But when it comes to weather extremes that hurt our communities, our rivers, and our economy, we have to act.  Restoring and repairing our rivers not only makes them more resilient, it makes us more resilient too.

This bill has been passed in the Senate.  The House version comes up for hearing next month.  Please contact Representative Steve Daines today to encourage him to support this common-sense, bipartisan measure.  With more extreme weather no doubt on the way, it’s the smart thing to do.

On behalf of clean water and the Clark Fork Coalition, I’m Karen Knudsen.