Madison Valley weeds and water workshop well attended

North Meadow Creek rancher Lynn Owens (white hat) demonstrates how to gauge stream flow at the recent Weeds and Water workshop sponsored by the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. Photo by Greg Lemon.

McALLISTER – The Madison Valley Ranchlands Group organized a gathering last Wednesday at the Hamilton Ranch on North Meadow Creek to listen to experts discuss two issues critical to landowners – noxious weeds and water rights.

The workshop was attended by about 30 people, many of whom own land in the North Meadow Creek area. The focus of the workshop was to provide interested landowners with information and contacts to better understand water rights and noxious weeds issues they may face on their property, said Sunni Heikes-Knapton, Madison Watershed Coordinator.

“It seemed like there has been a number of people that need up to date information about water rights and responsibilities and weed control efforts and weed control opportunities,” Heikes-Knapton said after the meeting. “So it was kind of timely to combine both of those topics together in one workshop.”

First, the attendees listened to a lengthy discussion about water rights by Montana Water Court senior water master Colleen Coyle.

In Montana, water rights are set on a seniority basis, Coyle explained. What this means is the older the water right, the more senior the water right. This is called the prior appropriation doctrine.

“The key part of prior appropriation is first in time first in right,” she said.

Prior to 1973, water rights could be secured by diverting water and using it, which was called a use right. They could also be secured by filing a water right with the state. And finally, water rights could be determined by a decree of the court.

The historic system of water rights wound up with a very confusing array of water rights on streams and rivers around the state, Coyle said. Particularly since no entity was cataloguing all water rights.

To deal with the mess, the Montana legislature passed the Montana Water Use Act, which went into effect in 1973. The crux of the act was to establish that all water rights must be confirmed through a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation adjudication process, which continues today.

For the adjudication process the state was divided into 85 watersheds and all water rights in each watershed are analyzed, put through a public review process and then adjudicated. The Madison Valley completed the adjudication process several years ago, Coyle said. However, many other watersheds in the state are still going through the adjudication process.

Water issues can still be prickly issues between neighbors. Several of the questions Coyle fielded at the workshop were about specific problems between water right holders in the North Meadow Creek area.

Some had questions about junior water rights holders not shutting off water to their ditches when requested by the senior water right holders. Others had questions about who was responsible to police the problem.

In Montana, the honor system governs water use unless a water commissioner is appointed to a specific watershed, Coyle said. What this means is water right holders are on the honor system to take only the water they have a right to and to shut down when asked by senior water right holders.

If a waterway has gone through the adjudication process, water complaints can be taken to district court, she said. And it takes 15 percent of the water right holders on a particular waterway to file a petition for a water commissioner, she said.

Water commissioners are court appointed people who monitor water rights along a certain waterway. The water commissioner monitors how much water each right holder is taking and operates under the water rights finalized in the adjudication process, Coyle said.

Water rights can be transferred with property and so in places where a lot of subdivision has taken place, things can get complex.

“Places where you have subdivisions, it can sometimes be more helpful to have a water commissioner,” she said.

After the water rights discussion, the classed received a brief demonstration by Owens on measuring water flow and then listened to a presentation on noxious weeds.

An identification presentation was done by Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz and the Madison County weed coordinator Margie Edsall.

Noxious weeds continue to be a serious problem in Madison County and much of the West, Schulz said.

“I believe invasive plants, noxious weeds, are the number one environmental consequence we have on our landscape,” he said.

Edsall passed out encased samples of some of the county’s most notorious noxious weeds including houndstongue, spotted knapweed and Canadian thistle.

Dealing with each weed can be complicated. Some respond to pulling in small amounts, others respond well to mowing, others can be fought with bio-control efforts, Edsall said.

She encouraged people to contact her or Melissa Griffiths, weed coordinator for the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group if they had questions about weeds on their property.

In Madison County, people must work to control noxious weeds on their property, she said. This means developing a noxious weed plan and working to execute it.

Some people asked about federal lands within the county that are seldom if ever treated.

The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have been willing partners in fighting noxious weeds, Edsall said. So if people border federal land and have problems with noxious weeds moving across their property line, they should call Edsall and she’ll take it to the appropriate federal agency.

“They’re trying not to impact private land,” she said.

Madison County also has a cost share program for herbicides used in noxious weed control, Edsall said. The county can cover up to 50 percent of the cost of herbicides used on noxious weeds, up to $1,000.

The Madison Valley Ranchlands Group also has a cost share program for people in North Meadow Creek, said Griffiths.

This program will cover half the cost of labor for spraying noxious weeds and is funded by a grant, she said. However, not all the grant money is being spent and people in North Meadow Creek aren’t taking advantage of the program.

“Unless something drastically changes, we’re not going to spend it,” Griffiths said.

The ranchlands group received a $15,000 grant two years ago and so far only $5,000 of it has been spent, she said.

So far the grant money has also been used to fund some community weed spraying days and other outreach in the North Meadow Creek area, Griffiths said.

She emphasized that if people have noxious weeds issues, it’s not too late to start spraying.

“Sometimes people think that by this time of the year it’s too late to treat their weeds and that’s not true,” Griffiths said. “Sometimes fall can be a great time for spraying weeds.”

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