Water is, unquestionably, the earth’s most precious resource: it is necessary for life. It carries additional value for communities whose economy is driven by its water sources. In 2016, Park County, Montana faced a wake-up call when thousands of fish in the Yellowstone River died and prompted finger-pointing from both the agricultural and the recreational sides of the community. In a place where water is an integral player in the economy supporting both agriculture and a strong tourism industry, any circumstance that would affect the water would jeopardize the economic livelihood of the region.
As is often the case, it takes a critical event, such as the sudden death of thousands of fish, to bring attention to the need for water planning. According to Sara Meloy, Yellowstone River basin water planner for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, “Montana doesn’t do a good job of integrating planning for water use, ecosystems and land planning.” However, after the Yellowstone fish kill, the county began to consider issues such as drought planning in its growth policy. Farmers received the brunt of the blame for reduced water flow that, in combination with warmer temperatures, is thought to have created the circumstances leading to the fish kill. In western Montana, farmers have agreed to reduce water usage and to policies have been put in place that limit water use from the river during the summer when flow is reduced. However, not all parts of the state are looking ahead and planning similarly.
In March, Meloy is leading the Montana Water Summit 2020, at which the topics of land and water planning will be discussed. For areas like Park County, population growth and climate change along with challenges presented by farming and tourism will only strengthen the argument for long-term water planning as any circumstance that threatens the environment threatens the area’s economic stability.
 French, Brett. “Water Summit Seeks to Prepare State for Coming Challenges.” The Billings Gazette, 9 Feb. 2020, billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/recreation/water-summit-seeks-to-prepare-state-for-coming-challenges/article_e66933b7-a9cd-5edf-85d0-f58d3a18a398.html.
Photo Credit: Al Tuttle via Flickr