“We have not gotten our fair share of the federal resources,” said Don Youngbauer, head of the Yellowstone River District Council, at a five-hour meeting last week at Montana State University Billings.
Mr. Youngbauer wants at least $1 million in federal money to complete the first Cumulative Effects Study - a study designed to anticipate serious water shortages that was supposed to be completed five years ago.
“There has never been a study of this magnitude that has ever been done on any river in the world,” said Mr. Youngbauer. “We must look at the river, see how much water can be used and not compromise the people and communities downstream. It’s a travesty what we did to Mexico.”
Water in the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico has been all used up for agriculture, he said.
“We have not been very good to our neighbors to the south,” he said. “That river is just a dribble by the time it gets to the ocean now.”
He added, “Dang, when that oil spill happened on the Yellowstone, we got calls from India, France, England, and more. Everyone in the world knows how important the Yellowstone River is.”
Indeed, the meeting, hosted by MSU Billings, attracted the attention of Rebecca Wodder, a deputy assistant secretary to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who heads the agency that includes the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Ms. Wodder attended the Dec. 6 meeting and announced that she would relay the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council’s request for the funds to complete the Cumulative Effects Study to Mr. Salazar as soon as she returned to Washington, D.C.
Other studies of the Yellowstone reveal the importance of ecological, socio-economic and industrial aspects of the river, Mr. Youngbauer said. The river provides water for wildlife like ducks and geese, people and industry.
MSU Billings Professor Susan Gilbertz played a key role in the completion of the socioeconomic study, complemented by a summer tour of the river. Of the roughly 19 studies done on the river, the avian and the socioeconomic ones are complete, but many others languish, still unfinished, including an important economic study that was originally a pilot study, according to Mr. Youngbauer.
“Where would we be if we had not started these studies 15 years ago?” asked Mr. Youngbauer, in a telephone interview. “Oil people are buying water rights from cities, farmers” and others, he said. He explained that hydrologists, mainly in Sidney and Glendive, are drilling wells that eventually reduce water pressure. There are also water depots, where truckers transport millions of gallons of water to fracking locations.
“There is absolutely not enough water for the magnitude of development in the oil industry – right now, the oil industry could use all of the water in the Yellowstone and more,” he said.
A new federal program designed to protect rivers and watersheds is the Blueways Designation from the Department of the Interior, the focus of the Dec. 6 meeting. Encouraging diverse federal agencies to communicate with each other more effectively, the Blueways Designation identifies so far only the Connecticut River and its New England watershed as a federal Blueway.
During the five months of that river’s enjoyment of Blueway status, no significant reports have been released.
The primary federal agencies involved are the Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey and BLM. The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet found a representative role in this effort.
On the state level, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are involved. Mr. Youngbauer said more cooperation is needed between state and federal agencies, especially the Army Corps of Engineers, which helps protect rivers from erosion and builds levies to stave off floods.
Although the council does not know how much funding the YRCDC effort will receive, the council, via Mr. Youngbauer, said that the federal agencies have already contributed $6.5 million over five years and that there is now a cost-sharing mechanism through which Montana contributes 25 percent and the feds 75 percent.
Montana has invested way beyond its original obligations, said Mr. Youngbauer. Besides leading the YRCDC, Mr. Youngbauer is also a dentist and cattle rancher with about 500 head in Forsyth, 28 miles north of the river.
The public is invited to the meetings of the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council. Call 223-5702 or 247-4411 or check yellowstonerivercouncil.org for information.