Trading Water for Trout

Published: 
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Trout Unlimited helps agricultural producers leave water instream to enhance fish habitat

Environmental Concern
Nearly 4,000 miles of Montana streams are dewatered each year. This is not the result of drought, rather an inefficient method of allocation. Water allocation in the west is defined by prior appropriation where priority use was given to the first water users leaving what remained for subsequent claimants. The right is maintained by annually diverting the water for use. The right to any water left unused risks being lost. Sharing or transferring the water right was historically prohibited.

While working with ranchers to enhance instream flow, Pat Byorth, a fisheries biologist turned lawyer with Trout Unlimited, began to understand the legal complexities of trout habitat. Farmers that left water instream risked losing the right and the economic value of it. To help the trout the law had to change.

Market Solution
Montana, among other states, now allows water trades and rights to instream flow. The right to transfer water through sale or lease encourages cooperation and consideration of alternative use values. Concern over lost habitat from low water on Wasson Creek in Montana, for example, led Trout Unlimited to partner with an adjacent ranch. Under the new law, rather than risk losing their water right, Mannix Brothers Ranch was able to skip late season irrigation and leave water instream. In return, the ranch was compensated to cover the lost pasture production creating a win-win deal for both fish and farmer. The emergence of environmental markets for water is helping rewater the west.

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Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and using...
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As PERC's Media & Marketing Manager, Kristen translates and markets academic research to students, policymakers, and journalists by adapting and packaging PERC's stories. Prior to PERC, Kristen produced segments for the STOSSEL show on Fox Business, worked at a local news station in Philadelphia, and wrote for the Washington Examiner. As a...
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