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Dillon, Montana

Big Hole and Jefferson Rivers Win Conservation Grants 
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

February 28, 2003

For years, members of the Big Hole Watershed Committee and the Jefferson River Watershed Council searched under every stone to find ways to pay for myriad water conservation projects. 

Those efforts have been noticed all the way to Washington, D.C. 

This week, Montana Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus announced that the rivers will each receive a federal appropriation of $400,000 that can be used help move along needed projects. 

On the Jefferson River, the money will help find ways to make irrigation more efficient and therefore eventually keep more water in the river. 

"We are exceedingly pleased Congress under stands that funding of cooperative water conservation projects is key to dealing with drought while accommodating fish and agriculture," said Bruce Rehwinkel, coordinator of Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River Project. 

"There's plenty of need here," Rehwinkel said. "We don't intend to waste a dime of that money. There are a number of projects around that show a lot of promise." 

The Jefferson funding will be directed through the National Resource Conservation Service. It will be applied to professional engineering evaluations on irrigation systems and possibly pilot projects on leaky irrigation canals and ditches. 

"Our purpose is to increase river flows, deliver irrigation water more efficiently, and conserve valuable fish and wildlife habitat," said Dave White, the ser vice's state conservationist. 

The Jefferson River Watershed Council has been working on many of those same issues since it was formed in 1999. The council is a collaboration of local water users, anglers, Trout Unlimited members and local business owners who decided to work together to try and make a difference on the Jefferson River. It fashioned itself after the Big Hole Watershed Committee, which started meeting in 1995. 

In the last four years, the council has developed a voluntary drought management plan that helps river flows. 

On the Big Hole River, the appropriation is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Wildlife program. The money will be used on efforts that conserve water needed by both irrigation and the river's famed fishery, especially its dwindling population of native river-dwelling arctic grayling. 

Arctic grayling numbers in the Big Hole have been dramatically impacted by the last few years of drought. One group has promised a lawsuit in attempt to force the federal government to place the grayling on the federal endangered species list. 

Steve Luebeck, a member of both the Big Hole Water-shed Committee and the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the focus for upcoming projects will be on the grayling's stronghold near Wisdom. 

Projects might include water storage projects or possibly water leasing.  

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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