Voluntary water, fishing restrictions implemented on Big Hole

As the hot summer presses on, the Big Hole Watershed Committee is beginning voluntary restrictions outlined in the Big Hole River Drought Plan.

“We all know it’s dry,” said Randy Smith, chairman of the BHWC. “We’re working together to get through this thing.”

The Big Hole River Drought Management Plan was adopted in 1997 and has been updated several times since then. The goal of the plan, as stated in the first paragraph is: “to mitigate the effects of low stream flows and lethal water temperatures for fisheries (particularly fluvial Arctic grayling) through a voluntary effort among agriculture, municipalities, businesses, conservation groups, anglers, and affected government agencies.”

The plan is essentially voluntary, but it also calls for fishing closures when water levels drop to a certain point or temperatures elevate past a certain level.

The idea behind the plan is to have a series of levels of response as water temperatures increase and the river level drops, Smith said.

“It’s an educational thing at the start to make people aware that the water levels are getting low and it’s dangerous for fish and tough on irrigators and recreationalists and everyone alike,” he said.

The drought management plan splits the river into four sections and currently each section has met triggers within the plan that call for voluntary irrigation and stock water restrictions and limiting fishing to morning hours, Smith said.

Currently, the upper Big Hole is flowing at about 27 cubic feet per second at Wisdom, 89 cfs at Mudd Creek, 259 cfs at Maiden Rock, and 224 near Glen.

Though the summer has been dry, conditions haven’t been as dry as Smith expected.

“The snowpack came out okay as far as not coming out all at once,” he said. “Probably with the prior water years, we’ve probably got a little excess flow coming in from that.”

The drought management plan was developed with many of the interests groups involved, Smith said. The idea was to try and get everyone who needs the Big Hole River to be healthy to come together to make a plan on how water was going to be managed when conditions were tough.

“What we tried to do with the drought management plan is try not to make any one user bear the brunt of the cost,” he said.

What came from the process was the understanding that everyone from fishermen to ranchers cherished the river as a resource.

“What we found out is the different interests on the river really have the same interests and that’s the resource and trying to protect it,” Smith said.

Under the drought plan, fishing will be closed on stretches of the river that reach 70 degrees for eight hours three days in a row. That hasn’t occurred yet and on most of the river, the temperatures are peaking near or just below 70 degrees each day.

Irrigators are urged to cut back where they can on water use and use well water for stock.

Flows on the upper Big Hole River are monitored closely because of the native population of Artic grayling. The fish is sensitive to low flows and high water temperatures and the upper Big Hole is important spawning habitat for the fish, according to a press release issued by the BHWC.

For more information on the BHWC and the drought management plan, go to their website, www.bhwc.org.

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