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Missouri Breaks

The Missouri River runs through broken country referred to as The Breaks in central Montana as it winds its way east. 

Water. Clean water.

We Montanans rely on clean water. Not just for personal consumption but we need it to drive our state’s main economic force of farming and ranching and to provide the essential ingredient for one of Montana’s primary recreational pursuits, fishing.

It is easy to say that water is the lifeblood of Montana. Looking at a map of Montana that only shows the rivers and streams, it appears just like a diagram of the body’s circulation system of arteries, vessels and capillaries, but in reverse. In the body the blood vessels distribute from the heart to the extremities through ever smaller channels. Looking at the map, it is the smallest streams flowing into larger and larger waterways bringing the life-giving liquid down to the valleys and plains to support the people and their livelihood.

We have lived just outside of the Billings city limits for 32 years and have made countless trips between Billings and the Glendive area, where Lottie was raised. If you have never made this trip let us try to describe it as summer reaches its peak. On that drive, when you look from Interstate 94 toward the Yellowstone River, a lush, fertile land appears. From irrigation ditches and river pumps, the abundant water supports seemingly endless acres of wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, alfalfa and sugar beets. But if you look away from the river, you see the very dry native bunch grass and sage brush prairie with scrub cedar and juniper filling the draws and topping the hills. From the air, it is a green ribbon with a blue center stripe set against a background of gold and brown.

What can we do to ensure this supply of clean water? We must look at where the mighty Missouri, Yellowstone and Columbia (via the Flathead and Clark Fork) rivers start their journeys to the ocean. We can protect our headwaters streams on public lands where the flow of water begins.

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Luckily, a group of Montana individuals, businesses and conservation organizations have come together to craft federal legislation called the Montana Headwaters Security Act. This bill, if introduced and passed, will designate some of the best headwaters streams on public lands as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

What is the beauty of Wild and Scenic designation? It essentially preserves the streams as they are while not restricting any current access, including grazing rights, fishing, hunting, camping and other recreation. It ensures that water quality is maintained or enhanced. There is no effect on current water rights.

The designation of Wild and Scenic does prohibit development on public land in the future that would harm the free-flowing nature of the river or water quality. This would include projects like dam proposals on or dredging the river. It does not prohibit development on private land within the designated river corridor, but it does encourage state and local land use planning to maintain the character of the river.

We call on our congressional delegation to jointly introduce the Montana Headwaters Security Act. We also urge all Montanans to contact Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with Rep. Greg Gianforte to add their voices of support for this act.

To us, this is a no-brainer to protect our clean water for all the residents of Montana, its critical agriculture industry and recreation opportunities.

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Curt Starr is a retired accountant and former board member of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a member organization in developing the Act. Lottie Eaton is a retired physician and native of Prairie County. To learn more, go to https://www.healthyriversmt.org/.

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