Montana legislative committee highlights forest management’s impact on water supply

HELENA – Some Montana lawmakers and water users want the U.S. Forest Service to emphasize water supply when they make forest management decisions.

The Montana Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee heard testimony on the issue during a meeting on Monday.

John Bloomquist, a Helena attorney who specializes in water issues, told the committee forest management projects near river headwaters in the mountains can have a substantial effect on the water supply for farms and other downstream users. He encouraged lawmakers to bring up concerns about water when the Forest Service makes or revises its management plans.

“That agency is required under the law to consider, whether it’s taking action or not taking action, the implications that it may have on the water that comes off the forest – not only in terms of quantity, but also the timing,” he said.

Bloomquist said he has heard from a number of irrigation water users across the state in recent years that they’ve seen the annual runoff come earlier in the spring and end sooner in the summer or fall. That means the water is not always available during the times growers need it or even have the right to use it.

Some irrigators also raised concerns that large wildfires, like those across Montana in 2017, could further affect water supply. After a fire, they said they often see larger runoffs, which can lead to flooding or carry large amounts of soil with it.

“The severity of the runoff and the sedimentation that comes after a major fire can impact an irrigation project severely,” said Mike Murphy, executive director of the Montana Water Resources Association.

Murphy said more extensive management could help reduce the risk of one of those major fires.

“We can manage the impact of fires and the severity of those fires that happen over time, as we clean up the forests and we keep them appropriately clean,” he said.

Leaders and community members will discuss water policy issues further during the two-day Montana Water Summit in Helena, which will be held at the Radisson Colonial Hotel in Helena starting Tuesday. The event is sold out.