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Big Hole River Drought Management Plan

On December 17, 1997, history was made in Divide Montana. That date marked the final approval of the Big Hole River Drought Management Plan, or Dry Year Plan as it has become known, by the Big Hole Watershed Committee. The provisions of this plan call for an organized effort by all interest groups to Amitigate the effects of low stream flows and lethal water temperatures on fisheries.

In the view of our Chapter this is a major accomplishment, and a goal of our Chapter for the last three years. This plan will help to maintain minimum flow levels in the main stem of the Big Hole River. The droughts of 1988 and 1994 saw some of the lowest flows ever recorded on the Big Hole River. The flow at the Melrose gauging station in 1988 was recorded at 53 cubic feet per second (cfs), and in 1994 the flow reached 146 cfs. In the opinion of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 150 cfs is the bare minimum to maintain the fishery in the river. Below this flow, the fish are concentrated in the larger pool which makes them more susceptible to predation from larger fish, ospreys, herons otters not to mention man. The aquatic insects in the river also take a beating and dewatering maybe the main reason for the less than prolific Salmon Fly hatches seen in recent years.

The Dry Year Plan aims to alleviate these problems through a voluntary effort of reduction of water diversion and use of ground water for watering stock. The plan will also put in place the mechanism to close the fishing season on the Big Hole River during a catastrophic drought.

Since the river flows for in excess of 100 miles and through vastly different terrain and geology. The plan splits the river at the Dickey Bridge. The area upstream of the bridge will be managed based on flows recorded at the Wisdom Gauge. The area downstream will be managed based on flows recorded at the Melrose Gauge. The water upstream of Dickey Bridge is predominately a Brook Trout and Fluvial Arctic Grayling fishery, and is of particular interest to the United Stated Fish and Wildlife Service because of the diminished numbers of Fluvial Grayling in the lower 48 states. The area down stream is predominately a Rainbow and Brown Trout fishery.

A three-tier process will be followed in each of the two areas to raise public awareness of impending drought condition. These steps will be triggered based on flows recorded at the two gauges. These flows are: at the Wisdom Gauge 60 cfs, 40 cfs and 20 cfs. At the Melrose Gauge the flows are 250 cfs, 200 cfs and 150 cfs. Step one of the plan calls for raising the public awareness of impending drought conditions. This will be done through press releases on a statewide basis. FWP will meet with the Big Hole Watershed Committee to present data and formulate options including voluntary reductions in irrigation, municipal water use, angling and the use of stock water wells; and prepare to implement these plans. A phone tree will be initiated to keep irrigators and outfitters advise of stream flow conditions.

Step two of the plan requires a notice to outfitters and anglers statewide requesting fishing be voluntarily limited to morning hours. Use of stock water wells will be initiated in the upper basin. Step three will include closure of the fishing season on the affected section of the river until flows reach step two levels for seven days. Voluntary reduction of irrigation withdrawals will be implemented and well use for stock watering will be implemented.

The success or failure of this plan lies in the hands of the members of the committee. Each member has made a commitment to communicate with their respective groups concerning implementation of the plan and secure their support and compliance. While 100% compliance will be difficult to achieve, it is believed that most irrigator will participate. A 5% reduction in irrigation across the board would probably maintain minimum flows.

This plan is not the final solution to dewatering in the basin. It is a stop gap measure meant to alleviate dewatering until a final solution is found.

 

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Copyright 1998 Trout Unlimited
Last modified: June 10, 1998