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Hi-Line Living: Should Fresno feed fish as well as crops?

Advocates seek to change irrigation-only designation for reservoir


Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

Advocates say it's high time Fresno Reservoir be recognized and authorized as what it already is - a recreational body of water and fishery as well as an irrigation reservoir.

This year's drought has diminished pool levels of the reservoir and, consequently, revived conversation about why, after decades of recreational and angler use, Fresno is still only federally recognized as an irrigation storage reservoir.

Carolyn Anderson, a former member of the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited and a vocal advocate for the reservoir's re-authorization, said she got involved in the conversation about 20 years ago because she became concerned over how Fresno water was being managed. She is still concerned.

"The usage has changed on Fresno - it's like way past time to start recognizing this and to act accordingly," she said.

Typical of most reservoirs in the West, Fresno - with nearly 92,000 acres of storage capacity - was originally built for agricultural irrigation as part of the national effort to settle the West. But since its completion in 1939, Fresno has evolved and turned into a popular spot for boaters as well as one of the best walleye fisheries in the region.

A 2015 weekend creel survey done by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks revealed that 1,358 anglers fished Fresno that year. And of all the people surveyed, 46 percent of them used boats for some type of recreation, FWP fisheries biologist Cody Nagel said.

"When we're talking about water in Fresno - yeah it's important for fish - but it's also very important for your recreational users," Nagel said.

Fresno is part of a convoluted water system that starts with Lake Sherburne in Glacier National Park. From there it is diverted, via the St. Mary's Diversion and Conveyance Facilities to the Milk River - with the irrigation project commonly called "the lifeline of the Hi-Line" - before spilling into Fresno and then moving down the Hi-Line for storage in Nelson Reservoir. Fresno has one of 10 Montana Wildlife Management Areas in the Milk River basin, along with the Dodson Diversion Dam, Dodson South Canal, Nelson Reservoir, Vandalia Diversion Dam and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge located in the Milk River Basin near Malta and the Lost River Wildlife Management Area west of Fresno.

In 1903, the secretary of the Interior authorized reclamation to construct the Milk River Project as a single-purpose irrigation project. Fresno was constructed, through funds with the National Industrial Recovery Act in August of 1935 and completed in 1939, as a single-purpose project to provide storage by Reclamation for the Milk River irrigation project lands.

Representatives of both the Bureau of Reclamation and FWP say benefits would occur should Fresno be also recognized as a fishery and recreation spot, as well as an irrigation reservoir.

Marias-Milk River Division Bureau of Reclamation Division Manager Mike Hilliard said irrigators pay about 75 percent of St. Mary system operations and maintenance costs. Those costs could be lowered on the irrigators if the reservoir were recognized as a recreation body of water as well.

And it's possible a reauthorization that would include Fresno as a fishery would mean higher pool level standards, he said.

Lake Sherburne is full and Hilliard said it's delivering into Fresno the maximum capacity the St. Mary Diversion is capable. The St. Mary canal system used to be able to deliver 850 cubic feet per second. That is no longer the case. Because of sedimentation buildup and other problems, the maximum the canal can deliver is 600 cfs, Hilliard said. The amount of water lost to evaporation and seepage during its travels all contributes to Fresno's current low pool level, Hilliard said.

But, Hilliard added, should Fresno be authorized as a fishery, standards could change. The lowest pool levels the BOR feels comfortable with allowing, he said, is about 2,540 feet, 15 feet below the level FWP said is when the fish communities start hurting. If Fresno were also a federally-recognized fishery, that minimum level could rise. As of Thursday, the pool level was at 2,553 feet, 2 feet below what FWP said is the minimum needed to promote a healthy habitat for fish.

"FWP would be able to get their voice at the table more," Hilliard said.

Nagel said Fresno's possible reauthorization to include fishery and recreation would probably be good for the fish communities.

The most recent palpable result of drought has been a dropping pool level that threatens the ability of boats to be launched and, a possible longer termed consequence, a devastation of a many of the fish species in Fresno, he said.

The last time the Fresno Reservoir water level sunk as low was at the turn of the century, when north-central Montana went through a two-year drought from 2000 to 2002, Nagel said.

"That was a pretty prolonged period," Nagel said last Friday.

Right now, Nagel added, the drought may be "just in the early stages," and there's no way to tell how long it will last. What he does know, he said, is if the drought continues and pool levels continue to drop, it will devastate the fish in the reservoir.

At 2,555 feet the fish communities start getting hammered, Nagel said. If the reservoir gets through fall and winter and approaches spring with low water levels, it will start to affect fish spawning.

"Now you're missing your spawning opportunities and those fish cannot reproduce. The longer those conditions persist, it continues to hammer those fish communities," he said.

Fresno hasn't been restocked since 2011, Nagel said, as the fish community has been self-populating.

FWP, Nagel said, had to restock the reservoir after the 2000 drought. The northern pike population "pretty much went down to nothing," he said. It took about five years to build the fishery to regular abundance. It also took about six years to build the fishery back up to normal angler use.

Nagel said it takes about two to three years for walleye fish to get to a size that is preferred by anglers. And it takes about six or seven years for those fish to get to the 20- to 21-inch level.

In 2011, FWP Bureau Chief Dave Risley wrote a letter to BOR Area Manager Dan Jewell in Billings, with recommendations for Fresno Reservoir water management.

Jewell wrote that "sportsmen groups have grown increasingly critical of the perceived lack of operational consideration give to the fisheries." Jewell mentioned multiple fish species and what pool levels are best for their growth and survival. Just as Nagel said, Jewell wrote that pool levels below 2,555 feet "have been shown to be extremely detrimental to the entire fish community of Fresno Reservoir."

FWP, Jewell concluded, stands with rehabilitation advocate groups like St. Mary Rehabilitation Group and is willing to partner with them to work toward the common goal.

St. Mary's working group is made of representatives of local groups like Walleyes Unlimited, irrigation boards and municipalities - "they all get together as a group and discuss what they can do for the St. Mary system," Hilliard said.

"Lately they've been lobbying Congress, using a water strategy firm in D.C., trying to get the authorization to being a multi-use project which would include fisheries, recreation, flood control," he added.

As for irrigators, Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick said farmers are not opposed to having help with the bills from other parties. But without knowing what a specific plan of reauthorization would look like, they can't say whether they would like Fresno to be reauthorized or not.

"It's never been presented on what it would look like," Patrick said.

But, she added, it is going to take more than talk and letters to get Fresno recognized as a fishery. Nothing will change without Congress.

"Can the authorization change? Yes, it can," Hilliard said. "The stakeholders get together with the irrigators and they have conversations and eventually end up getting it all the way to Congress to change that authorization. It has to be done by an act of Congress to change that authorization."

Anderson met with a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., last Friday. They drove around the lake and the representative took pictures while Anderson fed her details about the system and the reservoir. No promises were made, only that the concern and information will be passed along, Anderson said.

Anderson said she has sent information to Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester about Fresno as well.

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

"Sen. Daines is looking into the issue and Montana is experiencing historic drought conditions as we speak," Katie Waldman from Daines' office said. "Addressing those challenges are top priorities for Sen. Daines. Any solution should balance those needs while protecting wildlife and Montana¹s unique outdoor recreation opportunities."

"Sen. Tester is aware of the competing interests for water in the area and encourages folks on the ground to work together on a solution that meets the needs of all water users," his spokeswoman Marneé Banks said.

Amid concerns, there may be a silver lining in the forecast for next month.

Harvest is approaching, and one thing people concerned about Fresno pool levels can feel pretty comfortable with is that pool levels will probably begin to rise afterward. As irrigators downstream will require less water, the outflow from Fresno will subside, the Bureau said.


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