MISSOULA — Montana and Idaho rivers could see some federal upgrades if a U.S. Senate-passed bill makes it into law.
The Water Resources Development Act includes a $30 million provision to benefit the headwaters of the Missouri, Yellowstone and Columbia river systems. The Senate passed the $12 billion measure 83-14 last week.
“There’s long been federal resources for river restoration projects that need repair after they’ve been badly damaged,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers. “This provides money to protect rivers while they’re still healthy.”
The funds usually go to the Army Corps of Engineers. Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo added the extra provision to give their respective state agencies more flexibility to get work done.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and money helping Montana communities recover from disaster over the past few years,” Baucus said in an email. “Investing in homegrown prevention efforts will save taxpayer dollars moving forward by boosting local efforts to prepare for flooding and drought before they occur.”
In Montana, the money will probably go through the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Local groups such as the Clark Fork Coalition or Five Valleys Land Trust could propose projects, but CFC legal director Barbara Hall said the procedure was yet to be worked out.
Examples include funding channel migration mapping, which predicts how rivers may shift and cut into new territory along their banks. Such maps could help counties plan for housing development along river corridors. The money could also be used to reconnect rivers to their floodplains, which absorb the energy of spring runoffs and prevent damage to downstream reaches.
The bill contains an additional $30 million in matching funds for boat inspection stations that check for invasive zebra quagga mussels and other species that harm lake and river ecology.
Nationwide, the act funds harbor and river dredging, port maintenance, navigation locks and dams and other infrastructure efforts. Its wide-ranging impact explains why it had such support in an otherwise divided Senate, Bosse said.
However, the bill must still pass the House of Representatives. Debate is expected to begin on that side of Congress this summer.
“If you do a really good job protecting your headwaters and keeping them healthy, the benefits accrue all the way downstream,” Bosse said. “You couldn’t make the same argument in Louisiana, that protecting the Mississippi there helps upstream areas.”