Flood Recovery Done Right: Lessons Learned from the ’97 Flood

By David Brooks, Executive Director, Montana Trout Unlimited 

As historic flooding in the Yellowstone watershed recedes and people impacted turn to the daunting and complicated task of rebuilding, it is valuable for us to reflect on the last time the Yellowstone flooded. The aftermath of the highwater event that took place in the spring of 1997 offers lessons for moving forward now. 

Whether it’s car bodies or rock, confining rivers usually leads to downstream consequences. PC: Bill Pfeiffer

That year, a deep snowpack followed by a warm spring with heavy rains sent the river out of its banks for much of its length from Yellowstone National Park through Billings and beyond. Scenes of property and infrastructure damage were much like those we’ve seen this June. Then, as now, people think of floods as great acts of nature. To some degree that’s true. But the 1997 floods brought home the reality that how we manage and manipulate our rivers also determines how floodwaters behave. 

Between 1995 and 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) issued more than 170 permits for projects along the banks of the Yellowstone River, mostly for riprap, dikes and other bank hardening that reduced natural river habitat. Many of those permits were issued in a rush following the 1997 floods. There was so little analysis of how individual projects would cumulatively impact river health and future flooding that Montana Trout Unlimited joined four other conservation organizations in taking the Army Corps to federal district court. Because of the lawsuit, projects were put on hold. By summer of 2000, our coalition prevailed. The court unequivocally deemed that the Corps had violated the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by allowing the modification of the river’s banks without analyzing how such projects would have a collective negative impact on the river’s health and cause worse future flooding. Blanketing the banks of the Yellowstone or any river with boulders, concrete or hardened canal-like walls was increasingly harming fish and greatly increasing the flood risks to downstream neighbors. As MTU’s Executive Director Bruce Farling put it, the court decision was “the insurance policy Montana needed to prevent the slow death of the Yellowstone, one rip rap project at a time.” 

A functioning flood plain on Rock Creek. PC: Bill Pfeiffer

Since that ruling, the Corps has been more cognizant of the negative impacts of projects that reduce natural habitat in ways that accelerate and compound flooding. In contrast, maintaining or restoring riparian habitat absorbs floodwaters, slowing and reducing the rush of spring runoff, keeping that water within the river or, when it spreads into the natural floodplain, dampening the force of floods on human infrastructure like homes, roads, and bridges. In short, what’s good for fish and wildlife turns out to be good for protecting riverside property and adjacent infrastructure. Following the previous flood and lawsuit, a citizen and expert task force studied the upper Yellowstone, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in research that documented the damage caused by years of artificial bank stabilization. It also recommended better ways to rebuild and create resiliency in the Yellowstone and other rivers. 

The investment in efforts to restore natural river habitat rather than the short-term solutions of riprap or riverside lawns, to build bridges or culverts that better accommodate fish, wildlife, and floods, and to give rivers some space to rise up and move around, as they inevitably do, will pay off during future historic events, with more protections for fish and wildlife, and less risk to property and life. Rebuilding healthier rivers from top to bottom will help keep fish from being washed into fields and stranded. Maintaining a meandering river instead of straightening it can help keep flooding out of places like Red Lodge. Building better engineered bridges can keep rural residents connected to communities and reduce the need for emergency closures of rivers like the Yellowstone. Restoring fully functioning floodplains and resilient river habitat does not prevent floods, especially as we adapt to the alterations that climate change is having on the amount and timing of snowpack and spring rains. But if river restoration following the devastation of 2022 saves native and wild trout, saves on future flood cleanup costs, or saves one home, it sure seems worth considering. 

MTU Starts “Wrappin’ & Rappin'” Vidcast

Wrappin’ & Rappin’ is Montana TU’s new video podcast series, focusing on signature flies from some of the state’s premiere waters, as well as discussions about conservation in the places our guests know best. Each week we tie a fly and chat! In this episode, we focus on the Smith River and the Gonzo streamer, popularized by Joe Sowerby of MT Fly Fishing Connection. Our guests our MTFFC guides Will Plumhoff and Jason Brininstool. We discuss this year’s drought and how the river fared, hear some stories of the Smith’s infamous weather, and talk best boat camps, including one that may be haunted! Enjoy!

How to Fish Responsibly This Summer

Montana is currently in the midst of an unprecedented heatwave and drought and our wild trout populations are feeling the heat. Many streams around the state are already under “Hoot Owl” fishing restrictions or full closures, earlier than we’ve ever seen these emergency regulations in the past. In this difficult time for our fisheries, it’s more important than ever that all anglers do what we can to limit our impact on this shared resource. We’ve complied a list of recommendations to help you decide when, where, and how to fish until things cool down.

Why is water temperature important?

Trout are cold blooded animals with a metabolism that depends directly on the temperature of the external environment. They also rely on highly oxygenated water and the warmer water gets, the less dissolved oxygen it can hold. Most trout species’ optimal temperature range is 55F-65F for maximum growth and health. For native bull trout that range is even colder. When water temperatures rise into the high 60s, trout begin to experience stress and hooking mortality rates increase. If temperatures remain above 70F for an extended period of time, trout begin to die, especially if they are caught and released.

What can I do to help our fisheries?

There are a number of ways you can fish responsibly this summer and protect our trout fisheries. Here’s just a few:

  • Check the MT FWP website every time you go fishing for “Hoot Owl” restrictions and river closures. On rivers with “Hoot Owl” closures, fishing is only permitted  between midnight and 2pm when water temperatures are coolest. New emergency regulations are coming out almost daily. Stay informed!
  • Use a stream thermometer when you fish, available at your local fly shop. Water temperatures change throughout the day with the coldest water occurring in the early morning. Take the temperature frequently throughout the day and when water temperatures rise above 67F, stop fishing. Here’s a short video we produced showing you how to properly take a water temp:

  • Always keep fish wet and release them quickly. Save your “grip and grin” photo sessions for the fall, when conditions improve.
  • Use heavier tippet and land fish quickly. Prolonged fight times in warm water place a high amount of stress on the fish and increase hooking mortality. This isn’t the time to see if you can break your personal best on your trusty 3wt.
  • Consider exploring high mountain streams and mountain lakes, where water temperatures stay cooler and give the big river fish a break.
  • Take the time to do some warm-water fishing. Carp, bass, and northern pike are fun to target on a fly rod!
  • Consider taking a break from fishing during this hot weather and find other ways to enjoy the Montana outdoors. Floating, swimming, hiking, biking, and more are just out your door. Take some time this summer to learn a new skill or pastime.

These are just a few suggestions to help you protect our trout this summer. If we all do our part and fish responsibly, we’ll have more fish to chase once conditions improve. MTU works hard year-round to do what we can to mitigate the effects of our warming climate, from stream restoration projects on tributary streams to finding new ways to increase flows and put water back into the river. If you’d like to make a donation to support this work, click the link below. Thanks for all you do to further our mission!


CSKT Water Compact Passes Congress

by Clayton Elliott, MTU Conservation and Gov’t Affairs Director

After years of negotiations, MTU celebrates the recent passage of the landmark Montana Water Rights Protection Act, S. 3019.

This bill finally provides Congressional ratification of the negotiated water compact and settlement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), the State of Montana, and the United States. Congress noted that the $1.9 billion CSKT water compact is the largest water rights settlement in history between the federal government and a federally-recognized tribe. Foremost, the legislation finally settles on and off reservation-based water rights thereby avoiding decades of costly litigation that would create tremendous uncertainty for nearly all water users in western Montana.

As part of recognizing and ratifying CSKT’s water rights, the settlement will provide millions of dollars in renovation and restoration funds to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project that will deliver benefits to coldwater fisheries important to Westslope cutthroat and bull trout in western Montana.

The bottom line is that this legislation is good for Montana’s coldwater fisheries and their habitat. This bipartisan agreement inks into law a robust partnership for the future cooperative management of water in Western Montana. In addition to resolving for all time the legitimate, legal, and considerable water rights claims of the Tribes, saving decades of costly litigation and uncertainty, it also will inject millions of dollars into collaborative restoration of our wild fish and their habitats while upgrading aging irrigation infrastructure critical to the Tribes and agricultural users.

Here are some more details about why the MWRPA is good for Montana and our trout populations:

  • The Compact resolves for all time the very legitimate, legal and considerable water right claims of the Tribes on and off the reservation. As such, it will benefit owners of water rights in all of Montana west of the Divide, as well as in the upper Missouri and Yellowstone basins, because it obviates the needs for the Tribes from filing water right claims – as they are otherwise legally entitled to do – on the reservation and within their aboriginal territory. This will save water right owners and the State of Montana millions of dollars in litigation and court-related costs that come with defending claims in water court and other jurisdictions. By not adding thousands of new claims in water courts, Montana’s general adjudication of water rights can advance in a judicious and much less expensive fashion. If the Compact doesn’t get ratified, the Water Court estimates adjudication of water rights in Montana could take another two decades, at least.
  • The Compact protects current irrigators on the reservation, including within the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project (FIIP), by ensuring they continue to get water they have been legally entitled to in the past. It provides legally guaranteed water deliveries to FIIP irrigators in perpetuity – a guarantee that few, if any other water users in the State have. The Compact also protects all non-irrigation water rights from a tribal call on water, and it protects existing rights on and off the reservation by limiting tribal rights.
  • The Compact will make available up to 90,000 acre-feet of stored water from Hungry Horse Reservoir for future development in the Flathead Basin. Up to 11,000 can be used in Montana, off the reservation. This water can be used to supplement irrigation, residential or fishery needs, or to mitigate the effects of new development on existing water rights. This water cannot be used out of state.
  • Passage of the Compact will benefit water users on the reservation by triggering state expenditures of $55 million for improving irrigation infrastructure, paying for pumping costs and water measurement, and investing in stream habitat restoration. Additional federal funds will also be made available for infrastructure that will benefit both tribal and non-tribal water users. These activities will have beneficial values to coldwater fisheries on and off the reservation.
  • The Compact tangibly benefits fish and wildlife. Specifically, it includes enhanced protections for instream flows for important trout populations on the Flathead Indian Reservation and for the upper Clark Fork River. It also helps protect current streamflow guarantees off-reservation in the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Flathead, Swan and Kootenai River basins.
  • All off-reservation water rights granted to the Tribes in the Compact are either subordinate to, or parallel to existing water rights or dam license conditions held by the State of Montana and the federal and private utilities.
  • Upon ratification, the CSKT will be giving up forever any future claims to water everywhere in Montana, saving decades of costly litigation and uncertainty for water users and coldwater fisheries.
  • Implementation of the agreement will produce new and productive partnerships that will focus on the common objective of making water go farther for more uses – an important objective in the face of a shifting climate.

We’d like to extend a special thank you to our entire congressional delegation and all our partners in this long process. Because of your efforts, we will finally have certainty in these watersheds and the cold water fisheries of Montana will be better for it, now and in the future. Happy New Year!

Technical comments on the Smith Mine draft EIS

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Black Butte Copper Project. MTU also appreciates the time constraints that state law compels upon the DEQ to complete this DEIS. Those constraints are one reason for the many problems and gaps in the DEIS. Regardless of those constraints and the deficiencies within this DEIS, it’s clear that the risks this mine poses to water resources warrants our full support of the “No Action” alternative.

You can read our MTU-TU Smith Mine dEIS comments  here