As a headwaters state, Montana’s rivers are priceless, not only to its residents but also to people in downstream states. So part of a Congressional bill proposes federal funding to keep Montana’s streams healthy.

This week, U.S. Senator Max Baucus inserted a section into the Water Resources Development Act that would allocate $30 million for projects that mitigate the increasing effects of flooding and drought along Montana’s streams.

The proposal is the result of a few years of collaborative work that brought together communities, landowners, watershed groups and agencies across the state, said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director of American Rivers, based in Bozeman.

“What people are concerned about, especially with the weather over the past 10 years, are floods and droughts,” said Laura Ziemer, Montana water project director with Trout Unlimited. “There’s no concerns when the temperatures are moderate, the flows are good and everything’s in working order.”

Titled the “Northern Rockies Headwaters Extreme Weather Mitigation,” the section provides funds for proactive projects that maintain floodplains and stream flows, improve fish passage, control invasive weeds and buy conservation easements to preserve floodplains and riparian areas.

“There are other funds to restore rivers, but there’s really a shortage of resources for proactive projects,” Bosse said.

Healthy floodplains can absorb high waters and reduce the magnitude of flooding downstream whereas floodwater speeds up and bursts banks in channelized streams. Floodplains can slow the streamflow and reduce the amount of damaging debris carried by raging rivers.

Conversely, maintaining stream flows later in the summer season, through projects such as sealing ditches and installing efficient irrigation systems, allows water to continue to downstream states.

The emphasis is on installing “green” rather than hard infrastructure. For example, instead of reinforcing a bank with rock known as riprap, banks would be angled and re-vegetated to withstand river forces.

“It’s not only more amenable to maintaining healthy rivers, but it’s more cost-effective over the long run,” said Zeimer, of Bozeman.

There is some state funding for such projects, but the federal legislation recognizes that mountain states shouldn’t shoulder the entire burden for maintaining streams that feed interstate waters such as the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. So any project that qualifies would have to raise only up to 35 percent of its costs from nonfederal sources.

This is important because much of the work would probably occur on private land as opposed to public land. American Rivers associate director Michael Fiebig said 70 percent of Montana’s river miles travel though private land.

The Water Resources Development Act, like the Farm Bill, is renewed about every five years and authorizes stream-related projects that are usually carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Ziemer said Baucus was immediately supportive when conservationists brought the proposal to him last fall.

“Sen. Baucus has been a champion of stewardship, particularly private land stewardship, so this fit in with his way of taking care of Montanans – things that encourage economic vitality but also encourage personal stewardship,” Ziemer said.

Baucus reached out to Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho and got his support by including Idaho rivers in the section.

Bosse said they were proud that it was good for rivers, communities and taxpayers, providing a triple bottom line.

“The WRDA bill has notoriously been a big pork-barrel bill but this is the first one without earmarks,” Bosse said.

The U.S. Senate passed the WRDA 83-14 on Wednesday so it’s headed to the House where it’s likely to be voted on in late summer, Bosse said. Because it funds a lot of infrastructure, the WRDA usually passes Congress.

Rep. Steve Daines’ spokeswoman Alee Lockman said it was too early to say what Daines would do. The members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plan to write their own bill and no specific provisions have been ruled in or out at this point, Lockman said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

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