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In spite of the durability of rock-walled canyons and the surging power of cataracting water, the wild river is a fragile thing—the most fragile portion of the wilderness country.John Craighead, legendary Montana biologist

Montana’s rivers are ageless. But they are also very prone to change. It is far easier and less expensive to keep our rivers healthy and our water clean than to try to repair or clean them up after the damage is done.

As America’s population exceeds 310 million, our nation is putting more and more pressure on our rivers. Pipelines, floodplain development, and new dams and diversions all have the power to change our rivers forever.

Plus, Montana is getting hotter and drier. By 2050, scientists predict that Montana will be 5 degrees warmer and receive 10% less precipitation.  This will likely increase the demand for large new dams, the kind that Montanans successfully fought off on the Middle Fork Flathead, Yellowstone, Big Hole, and other treasured rivers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Some new water storage projects may prove necessary, but we cannot afford to imprison all our best rivers behind concrete. We need to think ahead and plan for the future.

New Dams

There are new hydropower projects proposed on the Upper Madison River, East Rosebud Creek, and West Rosebud Creek, each of which is cherished by anglers and boaters for their outstanding fishing and paddling. The National Inventory of Dams documents over 79,000 dams in the United States, though less than 3% of these currently have developed hydropower capacity. It only makes sense to develop electric capacity on existing dams before we impound new streams.

Inter-basin Transfers

Urban areas are reaching farther and farther for water. Montana soon could be in their sights. For example, in 2011 a Colorado developer filed for a preliminary permit to build a $9 billion, 500-mile long water pipeline from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming over the Continental Divide to the Front Range of Colorado. These types of projects are already common in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California, and recently have been proposed in Utah and Wyoming as well. Now is the time to protect Montana’s best rivers from these types of projects.

Oil and Gas Drilling

Montana is ready to contribute to America’s energy independence, but we do not need to sacrifice our best rivers in the process. We need to balance developing our energy resources with protecting our cleanest, healthiest rivers.  Specifically, chemically enhanced drilling, called fracking, has been implicated in the fouling of groundwater supplies in states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wyoming. We need to think ahead to protect our best rivers.


In July 2011, a 20 year-old Exxon pipeline transporting oil across the Yellowstone River near Laurel burst, releasing 63,000 gallons of oil that contaminated 70 miles of river bank.  Many more oil and gas pipelines are being proposed, as Montana and neighboring states and provinces develop their fossil fuel resources. Now is the time to protect the rivers that Montana’s cherish the most.


We all use precious metals, just like we all use clean water. From gravel to gold, mining is a part of Montana’s economy and history. At the same time, Montanans have taken steps to protect some waterways from the potential pollution and disruption that often comes with mining. Some rivers just shouldn’t be subject to the impacts of mining. Now is the time to identify those rivers.

Harmful Streamside Development

When people build in flood zones, it costs everyone in terms of disaster relief bills, and impacts to water quality, fish and wildlife. We want to provide riverside landowners and local planners the tools to manage their lands in a safe, river-conscious manner – tools like Channel Migration Zone mapping, noxious weed eradication, and floodplain easements.

Droughts and Floods

Montana’s rivers have already experienced dramatic changes just in our lifetimes. Our rivers are warmer in the summer, and peak runoff comes earlier in the spring. Scientists predict that by 2050, Montana will be 5 ºF warmer, but receive 10% less precipitation. Fisheries scientists predict that Montana may lose nearly half its suitable trout habitat if these predictions prove accurate. Montanans can plan ahead and keep our rivers healthy by making sure we use water wisely and maintaining our shade-providing streamside vegetation.