A major project to plan for future water needs in the Yellowstone River Basin will kick off in Billings on Monday.
The Yellowstone River Basin project is part of a statewide water-planning effort called the 2015 Montana Water Supply Initiative to update the Montana State Water Plan.
The plan identifies options to meet future needs while protecting existing uses and the state’s water resources.
The Yellowstone River Basin is one of four basins in the initiative. The other three are the Clark Fork, the upper Missouri and the lower Missouri basins.
Jim Robinson, a planner with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservations’ Water Resources Division, said the department is conducting the water plan update as directed by the 2009 Legislature.
The public is invited to participate by attending meetings of an advisory council or regional meetings and sending comments to council members or to the DRNC.
The initiative’s goal is to provide the 2015 Legislature with recommendations on how the state can meet future water needs, Robinson said. Decisions by the Legislature on what policies and programs to pursue will guide the DNRC in coordinating development and use of the state’s waters, he said.
The process will document beneficial uses and demand for water in the basins, forecast increases in water demand over the next 20 years and identity water sources to meet those needs while protecting existing uses.
The plan will look at in-stream and out-of-stream water use as well as the public water supply, industrial water supply, power generation and other water uses, Robinson said.
The initiative is not a new water rights adjudication process, Robinson emphasized.
To get started, a new 21-member Yellowstone River Basin Advisory Council will meet in a daylong session on Monday at the Montana State University Billings downtown campus.
The morning session will begin at 9 a.m. and feature presentations on the history and purpose of water planning and background on water rights.
The afternoon session at 1 p.m. will include a round-table discussion to gather comments from council members. There also will be organizational activities for the new council. A public comment session will be held from 4 to 4:30 p.m.
The next step for the Yellowstone BAC will be to hold regional meetings to gather public comments on issues for study. The regional meetings are set for March 27 at Dawson College in Glendive; April 12 at the Big Timber Public Library in Big Timber; and April 24 at the Forsyth Public Library in Forsyth.
A final scoping meeting will be held May 8 at the MSU Billings downtown campus.
The DNRC will compile the information, perform technical studies and develop alternatives. The advisory council, working with the DNRC, then will develop recommendations and a draft plan that will be available for public comment. A final plan is to be presented to the 2015 Legislature.
The state last updated its water plan in the 1990s. This time, the Legislature requested the creation of basin advisory councils to be involved in the process, Robinson said.
“It’s up to them to identify the issues and come up with recommendations, with our support and technical resources, for the 2015 Legislature,” he said.
The Yellowstone BAC members represent a variety of water uses and include conservation districts and agricultural, environmental, industrial, municipal and tribal interests.
The Yellowstone basin is arid and gets its water from snow packs, Robinson said. “Every year, it’s always different,” he said.
What may come from the council are steps the state can take to help water users deal with the variation in water supply, Robinson said. Some of those steps may be the creation of wetlands, flood plain management, aquifer recharge and different types of irrigation methods, he said.
One of the recommendations in a 1970s planning effort for the Yellowstone River Basin was to expedite the adjudication of water rights, which the state did, Robinson said.
Sometimes the forecasting doesn’t pan out. In the 1970s, the plan projected there would be a need for water for coal slurry transportation, which didn’t happen, Robinson said.