Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ruby Valley

I had a few days off so instead of sitting around dwelling on it, I decided to chase speed-goats around. My tag is for the Ruby Valley, which does have some public land but also checker-boarded with a lot of private. Some of it is Block Management, which means the landowner has opened it for public hunting but you have to get permission. Sometimes that just means signing in at a sign-in box and some ranchers want hunters to actually come to their house and get a permission slip. After driving around for a little bit on day one, I figured it would be beneficial to get permission to hunt one of these ranches. (All the antelope does were on that ranch, which meant that's where the more active bucks would be.)
I called the rancher, we'll just refer to him as Dan, and set up a time to meet with him. I headed over and introduced myself. We got to talking about where and what I would be hunting and just kind of small talk when I asked him about the irrigation ditches being so full and then more specifically, why there's so much watering going on this time of the year.
I think we need to back up for a minute. I have been kind of defending the ranchers for using the system they were born into and I've been trying to be sympathetic to their way of life but I took clients out on the Boulder River the other day and I have to say, it was more than just a little disappointing. On one quarter-mile stretch of the Boulder, there were three diversion dams drawing at least a third of the water out of the river. Below those diversions, there was barely enough water to reach the cut-banks and only a couple holes had enough water to actually hold fish. It was kind of sad because I fished that river years ago and it was always pretty good and with what the USGS website was showing, it should have had close to normal flows of water in it.
(One thing about the website is that some of the gauges on some of the rivers are new and only have a few years of data so average flows on the site might not accurately represent historic levels. I suspect that's what's happening on the Boulder because I don't ever remember it that low and I had fished it a bunch back in the day; even during drought years.)
Driving down the Boulder a day after fishing it, then the Jefferson and on up the Ruby on my way to Alder, MT to hunt, I couldn't help but notice all the ranchers watering their September?! Are they trying to squeeze out one more cut? At what cost? I'm not going to lie, it really got my blood boiling.
I could feel the anger in my brow as it furrowed and contorted and to myself I was saying, "What the f#$k? Are these ranchers that greedy that they would suck every last drop out of these rivers to make a buck while the rest of us suffer?"
So now I'm sitting across from Dan and I'm asking him for permission to hunt his property and it took all I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn't offend him. But I wanted to know. I wanted to understand what the deal was with all the watering. I really wanted to gain some perspective so I was better at either defending the ranchers or proposing some kind of change to help preserve these fisheries.
So I asked and I'm glad I did.
"Are you a fishing outfitter?" Dan asked after inquiring about the irrigation still going on.
"I am."
He went on to explain.
In 1995, the Ruby River had a major fish kill as a result of dewatering by the ranchers so they got together and developed a water commission. The goal was to reach some kind of balance in order to preserve both, the resource as well as their livelihoods. With the help of scientists and FWP, they developed a plan that makes sure there's always a minimum flow of 20 cubic feet per second, which doesn't seem like a lot but for a river that size, is enough to support the fish and the fishermen.
One of the things they figured out was that by watering in the fall, yet still maintaining the minimum required flow, allowed for water recharge throughout the winter and into the next summer from shallow underground reserves. This isn't necessarily possible in all valleys but the Ruby Valley is the right shape and has a shallow bedrock that ensures that water flows back to the streambed. That recharge also helps to keep the river cooler because it's ground water or springs, which we know is good for trout.
Another thing the Ruby has going for it is that about 95% of the landowners are on board with the plan and they've never really had to legislate anything or appoint a water commissioner. They just call each other up and discuss the flow and if it gets too low, the ranchers decide together, how much water they should cut back. If everyone gives up 5%, that's usually enough to bring the flows back to where they need to be. No one ranch takes the brunt of a water shut-down and the fish are happy.
Again, the Ruby is a unique system and benefits from a few variables that other systems don't have. Back in the 1930's, the State Water Conservation Board; now the State Water Projects Bureau, proposed the building of the Ruby Dam and subsequent reservoir. The water in that reservoir is marketed to local landowners and other water users. One of those such users is Kennedy's Ruby Valley Ranch located on the lower part of the Ruby River. According to Dan, when the river get's lower than what they would like to see, they spend down their water shares, releasing water out of the reservoir but they don't draw it out of the river for irrigation. Other local landowners also have shares of that water they use in emergency situations but it's always done to maintain that minimum water flow in the river.
Now if you remember, the Kennedy's were the one's that tried to get their bridge access shut down to recreational users of the river. They have spent tons of money on litigation in order to keep their little piece of paradise exclusive to their guests. It hasn't worked yet but I've heard they are going to keep fighting so let's not give them too much credit for their ultraistic conservation efforts. In fact, if you go to the Ruby River, you'll notice that there is pretty good access to the river via the numerous leases the State has with many of the other land owners including the ranch Dan manages. This shows these ranchers do care about conservation and access for all. It also shows support for our industry; tourism and travel.
Don't get me wrong, the ranchers aren't going to just give up their rights and they are getting paid for the leases for access sites. They need to make a living too but I think this shows where we have opportunities for not just coexisting but actually collaborating on projects where both industries benefit and they can participate in our industry as well. And that's the point; where we can present opportunities for landowners to prosper as participants in the industry, we have a lot better chance of getting them on board for finding solutions to many of the issues we're facing concerning the health of our rivers.
On my drive I wondered about the chance that reservoirs could be built in watersheds such as the Boulder River. I've done a little research and have learned that when the Ruby Dam was built, 21 other dams were also built across the state in order to address water issues. That was in 1938. When I think about building such a huge project, it seems a little overwhelming but it shows that it can be done. And now with bigger and better equipment, and what we've learned about the watersheds and these ecosystems, I wonder what it would take to build more reservoirs for the sake of preserving the health of the rivers? It seems like we are blaming and pointing fingers and want people to give up something, which we probably do need some giving by the landowners but I wonder if we could use the Ruby as an example of how we might address these water issues without having one side have to give up everything? It's just a thought.
Keep 'em where they live...
P.S. I did hunt down in the Ruby Valley. I'll have to talk about that next time.

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