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It’s not easy talking about water and water rights with ranchers and farmers.

They can get defensive, and rightfully so.

“Irrigated land is five to 10 times more productive than nonirrigated land,” said Avon-area rancher David Mannix. “Economically, the water is extremely important to us.”

Whenever those water flows or rights were challenged in the past, agricultural folks would circle the wagons to protect what was theirs, Mannix said. But as he’s aged, Mannix’s views on water management have progressed.

“We’re all learning as we go,” he said. “Our grandkids are going to look at us and wonder, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’”

Neighbor to neighbor

Mannix ranches with his two brothers in the Nevada Creek valley between the Continental Divide and Garnet Mountains in northwestern Montana.

Several years ago the ranch downstream from him sold, and the new owners approached him with an unusual proposal.

“They came to us to see if there was something we could do to enhance the fishing,” he said. “It took us two years to come up with a simple solution.”

The solution was to leave ¾ cubic feet per second of water in Wasson Creek, a small headwater to the Blackfoot River. In return for leaving water in the stream, Trout Unlimited compensated the ranch for the loss of the water. The downstream rancher even gave the Mannix brothers a certain amount of grass if they would let high flows come down the creek every three to five years.

“That’s frosting on the cake,” Mannix said.

In 2003, Wasson Creek was surveyed for fish and no native westslope cutthroat trout were found and the maximum temperature of the stream’s water hit 80 degrees — hot enough to kill trout. In 2012 the same creek saw 14 radio-tagged cutthroat move up into the stream to spawn and the maximum water temperature was 65 degrees.

“So these streams are resilient,” Mannix said.

Caring about cows

The hard part is getting landowners to support projects like the one on Wasson Creek, Mannix said.

“There’s no one answer” on how to do that, he said. “It’s about trust. It’s about education. None of us are our own masters. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have cared what a biologist said because I wouldn’t have believed them.”

But over time, with the biologists demonstrating that they valued the ranchers while also pointing out the value of a restored fishery, the one-time opponents became associates.

“If you think I care about fish and I think you care about cows,” then we have a common place to start, Mannix explained.

By cooperating with an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies  from the USFS to BLM and FWP  Mannix said his family’s ranch has become more socially sustainable, too. When one of the ranch leases was challenged by an environmental group, those agencies leant their support to the Mannix Ranch.

On the Blackfoot

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Similar tactics bore fruit farther downstream as the Blackfoot Challenge Watershed Stewardship was formed in 1993. Based on shared sacrifice, the group guarantees an instream flow in the Blackfoot River of 700 cfs to protect native cutthroat and bull trout, explained Jennifer Schoonen, water steward for the group.

Working with 90 irrigators in the Blackfoot Valley, the program’s mission was to “Coordinate efforts to conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot watershed for present and future generations.”

So, local solutions for local problems  working on issues on a drainage-by-drainage basis – has been the most effective way to find common ground.

“Every river basin and state has its own water culture and laws and they are all very different,” said Laura Ziemer of Montana Trout Unlimited.

“In year’s past, it really was about Montanans getting together to have conversations,” she added.

By working from the ground up and involving landowners, the Blackfoot Challenge was able to secure commitments to guarantee the flows so that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks would agree not to initiate a “call for water” under its senior water right.

“Even in low flows, projects like David (has done) are bringing in water to keep the river cool,” Schoonen said.

Such cooperative efforts show that great strides can be made when competing interests, like anglers and farmers, work to find common ground.

“The million dollar question is: What if the wet year never comes,” Ziemer said. “If that happens we’re looking at wholesale shifts.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.