Preliminary Injunction Threatens Lower Yellowstone Irrigators


Irrigators and water users along the Lower Yellowstone are fighting to encourage a Federal Judge to lift the injunction halting construction of a fish bypass to the Intake Diversion Weir just outside of Glendive. If the Federal Judge does not lift the injunction before April 15th, the federal funding for the project will be lost. Without federal funding of the construction, farmers could be stuck footing the bill or losing the use of irrigation on the Yellowstone for 58,000 acres of farmland.

A hearing is scheduled on April 5th in Great Falls where the judge will listen to arguments for and against eliminating the injunction previously placed on the project. The proposed project is to modify the existing low-profile dam by constructing a bypass channel that is meant to aid fish in migrating upstream in order to spawn while continuing to provide a cost-effective delivery method for irrigation.

Manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project James Brower says of their argument to remove the injunction, “Our Attorney’s job is to prove that if the injunction is left in place and the funding is lost, it will hurt our communities more than the proposed weir and fish bypass will hurt the fish.  Loss of the federal funding would harm our community’s welfare, agriculture based economy, and irrigation supported city and rural drinking wells.” 

The economic impact irrigation has on Eastern Montana is immense. According to Dr. Gary Brester, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Montana State University, “The annual average total crop value produced by this irrigation district (over the past five years) is estimated to be slightly more than $54 million.” 

The dam also effects many who are not agricultural producers. Billings irrigation supervisor Russ Cummins says, “That's what a lot of people don't understand, is how much the ditches fill the underground water levels.  The ditches keep the water table filled up.  I've had people call me in the spring because we don't have any water in the ditch yet and their well is dry, here in the west end of Billings, and they don't pay any dues to the ditch at all.”

The Army Corp of Engineers has spent years working on the project including completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS which has already been approved, determined that the bypass channel was the best alternative for fish populations and for agriculture. Opponents of the project believe the EIS to be inadequate.

The conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife has filed suit in efforts to stop the project on the grounds that it would interrupt the spawning patterns of a rare, ancient species of fish called the pallid sturgeon. The Defenders of Wildlife suggest we “Kill the Dam, Not the Fish” and believe that the dam itself is unnecessary. They argue that there are scientific studies that suggest that an artificial fish way would not actually help the sturgeon. There are estimated to be only about 125 wild Pallid Sturgeon in the Lower Yellowstone today and the age of those Sturgeon is a concern for natural reproduction.

Agriculturalists are fearful that if the injunction is not stopped, this will set a dangerous precedent against irrigation and water use which would be devastating in a state whose largest economy is agriculture.

Although many farmers are already out in the fields this time of year, The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project encourages all farmers, ranchers, landowners and anyone impacted by these economies to take the time to show your support against the injunction. Eastern Montana community members showed up in strong numbers last June to testify and LYIP is requesting the same support at this hearing.

The Hearing is in Great Falls, Montana, April 5th at 1:30pm at the Missouri River Federal Courthouse, 125 Central Avenue West. Attendees will not need to testify, but are needed in numbers to show their support of the project.

Note from Northern Ag: On March 30th James Brower will be speaking on Voices of Montana about the issue.


Copyright Northern Ag Network 2017

Photo Credit of the Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Yellowstone Project 


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