Bitterroot River update.
Anglers, irrigators voice concerns about Bitterroot River levels
With temperatures soaring in July and very little rain, one thing is for sure. The Bitterroot River is in trouble.
Bitterroot Trout Unlimited hosted a forum Thursday night in Hamilton to address the concerns of irrigators and anglers about management of the Painted Rocks Reservoir water. Releases from the reservoir can help river flows and cool down the river a little bit.
The meeting followed a day of much-needed rainfall, something all those in attendance agreed was a godsend.
“Maybe we should have these meetings every few days, if it brings rain like this,” said Doug Nation, the president of Bitterroot Trout Unlimited.
But even with the recent rains, many concerns buzzed through the room about how the rest of the summer would pan out with limited water.
Nation explained the meeting was organized to share information and allow people to ask questions of those directly responsible for managing the water in Painted Rocks. It was a chance for the officials to set the record straight.
Bitterroot River commissioner Al Pernichele and state fisheries biologist Chris Clancy presented to a packed room the specifics of how water in the reservoir is managed and released into the river.
Pernichele gave attendants a primer on Painted Rocks Reservoir and explained how and when that water is released to supplement irrigation and boost flows in the river.
“The reservoir was poorly managed through the mid-1980s, but thanks to cooperative efforts, the area is pretty well managed now,” said Pernichele.
The reservoir holds about 30,000 acre feet of water. Fish, Wildlife and Parks controls 15,000 acre feet of that, which is used to boost instream flows in the Bitterroot River. The Painted Rocks Water Users Association has rights to 10,000 acre feet to use for late-season irrigation.
The FWP water is released first, with the irrigators’ water usually released soon after. Pernichele said so far irrigators have sufficient water to fill their needs, and they are taking quite a bit less water than the senior water rights allow them right now.
“Irrigators recognize the importance of instream flows, and converting from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation has helped out a lot,” said Pernichele. “The irrigators here cooperate with anglers.”
Nation and Clancy echoed that cooperation between anglers and irrigators.
“In years like this, we all have to share the pain a little,” said Nation.
“I haven’t been anywhere where people cooperate like this to manage the water,” said Clancy. “People here recognize the need to work together.”
Clancy said the water the FWP releases from Painted Rocks is used to hold water levels steady at Bell Crossing. The goal is to hold the flow at Bell Crossing right around 400 cfs, but in years like this, that flow is closer to 200 cfs. Clancy said this year is even worse than expected.
“We are at the low end at Bell Crossing,” said Clancy. “It’s hard to bring the cfs back up at this point.”
Clancy said some of the streamflow decreases along the Bitterroot are natural; that’s something FWP fights all summer long.
Last week, fishing along the Bitterroot River was closed from 2 p.m. to midnight each day. Clancy said this closure was based on a statewide restriction standard. Rivers must be restricted after water temperatures exceed 73 degrees for three consecutive days. That 73-degree rule was based on research that showed how higher water temperatures affect rainbow and brown trout.
However, these high temperatures also are harmful to cutthroat trout, who start to die off at a lower temperature, but Clancy says there wasn’t a lot of great research for cutthroat trout when the 73-degree restriction was established.
Clancy said fishermen are observing more dead cutthroat in the river. He explained cutthroat represent about one-fourth of the population in the Bitterroot, but are three-fourths of the observed mortalities in the river. Clancy said there are hopes of being able to factor cutthroat trout into restriction better in the near future.
“Even though there are way more cutthroat in the river than in the 1980s, there is still a general decline,” said Clancy.
There may not be a way to stop the river from warming up, though, he said.
“The water is warming up from air temperatures and natural causes,” said Clancy. “We just can’t cool the river down much with water from Painted Rocks.”
Both Clancy and Pernichele said there is just not enough water this year and more water can’t be released from Painted Rocks than what is already allowed.
“It’s a complicated situation with the water in the Painted Rocks Reservoir,” said Marshall Bloom, a Bitterroot Trout Unlimited member. “Hopefully this meeting provided an opportunity to get information and have questions answered.”
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