- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - It’s not easy talking about water and water rights with ranchers and farmers in Montana. They can get defensive, and rightfully so.

“Irrigated land is five to 10 times more productive than non-irrigated land,” said Avon-area rancher David Mannix.

Whenever water flows or rights were challenged in the past, agricultural folks would circle the wagons to protect what was theirs, Mannix said. But as he’s aged, Mannix’s views on water management have progressed.

“We’re all learning as we go,” he said. “Our grandkids are going to look at us and wonder, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’”

Mannix ranches with his two brothers in the Nevada Creek valley between the Continental Divide and Garnet Mountains in northwestern Montana.

Several years ago the ranch downstream from him sold, and the new owners approached him with an unusual proposal.

“They came to us to see if there was something we could do to enhance the fishing,” he said. “It took us two years to come up with a simple solution.”

The solution was to leave less than a cubic foot per second of water in Wasson Creek, a small headwater to the Blackfoot River. In return for leaving water in the stream, Trout Unlimited compensated the ranch for the loss of the water. The downstream rancher even gave the Mannix brothers a certain amount of grass if they would let high flows come down the creek every three to five years.

“If you think I care about fish and I think you care about cows,” then we have a common place to start, Mannix said.

The hard part is getting landowners to support projects like the one on Wasson Creek, Mannix said.

“There’s no one answer” on how to do that, he said. “It’s about trust. It’s about education. None of us are our own masters,” he said.

Biologists pointed out the value of a restored fishery, and one-time opponents became associates.

By cooperating with an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies, Mannix said his family’s ranch has become more socially sustainable as well. When one of the ranch leases was challenged by an environmental group, those agencies lent their support to the Mannix Ranch.

Similar tactics bore fruit farther downstream after the Blackfoot Challenge Watershed Stewardship was formed in 1993. Based on shared sacrifice, the group guarantees an in-stream flow in the Blackfoot River to protect native cutthroat and bull trout, said Jennifer Schoonen, water steward for the group.


Information from: The Billings Gazette, https://www.billingsgazette.com

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