Eastern Montana drought teaches us to protect our sacred waters

This blog ran as the Chair’s Column in the Summer 2017 Plains Truth, the voice of the Northern Plains Resource council.

Kate French, Northern Plains Chair

The drought in eastern Montana this summer reminds us, yet again, that ranchers and farmers depend on clean, reliable water sources for their livelihoods.

This summer, I’ve visited with producers in Dawson, Garfield, Fergus, Petroleum, and Phillips counties; and our conversations never stray far from this latest drought. When people aren’t racing out the door to fight yet another fire on a neighbor’s property or moving cows again to a less fragile pasture, they’re running the numbers over and over to figure out how they’ll ride this one out.

Individuals try to conserve water by stopping lawn watering, forgoing that car cleaning, and taking shorter showers. Individual actions are important but, sadly, the discussion often seems to stop there. The media and public ignore the enormous toll that extractive industry takes on our public water supply.

Fossil-fuel energy production sucks water

Recent research out of Carnegie Mellon University shows that energy power production is the largest single industrial consumer of water. Crude oil and coal industries require especially massive amounts of water at every stage of production – from extraction to waste disposal. Energy industry disasters often pollute our water (think pipeline bursts, coal ash pond leakage, etc.). Much of that water is ruined for decades or perhaps centuries.

Some folks have a misperception that agriculture is the biggest threat to our fresh water supply. It’s worth pointing out that agricultural producers aren’t all alike (small, conservation-minded family ranches are much more water-efficient than industrial citrus growers, for example). While meat production is said to be a carbon and water hog, it’s actually more water efficient than some fruit and vegetable production. Even more important, responsible agricultural producers don’t ruin the water supply permanently, taking it out of the hydrologic cycle.

This is a big deal. Placing the blame and responsibility solely at the feet of individual citizens and small-scale ranchers ignores the enormous toll that coal, oil, and gas projects inflict on our most sacred resource.

That’s why it’s so important that farmers and ranchers – along with all users along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers – fight the Keystone XL pipeline. A pipeline break beneath the Missouri River, for example, would threaten the drinking water supply for 30,000 people in northeastern Montana, as well as irrigation for hundreds of agricultural producers downstream. The water from these rivers is critical for our region, and should not be put at risk.

Northern Plains lawsuit

The Fort Peck Tribes have stood up against the potentially dire consequences this project could have for their people. Northern Plains’ lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s issuance of a “presidential permit” is another bold and important tactic to stop the KXL.

We recognize that the pipeline would bring some jobs and revenue to the region. But we also recognize that jobs and prosperity can be developed in ways that don’t threaten our precious water supply. A temporary bump in employment and taxes shouldn’t outweigh the extreme threat this project poses to our farms, ranches, and public health.

I encourage you to support the collective actions of the Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes and the Northern Plains Resource Council. Water is indeed sacred and we have a responsibility to defend it. Times of drought serve as a good reminder of this.