At least one busload and several carpools of anglers are heading to Helena on Tuesday to challenge proposed changes to Montana's stream access laws.
"We're tracking a lot of bills, but this is the one where we're really going to get engaged," said Land Tawney, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers. "The Ravalli County Game and Fish Association is sending a dozen members, and they're splitting the cost of the bus with us. I've got high school friends I haven't talked to in 10 years that want to get on the bus."
Their target is House Bill 309 by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, and Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby. The bill would allow property owners to close off waterways that are diverted for irrigation. As written, the new rules would undo a recent Montana Supreme Court decision that clarified the difference between water channels that might be natural streams or manmade ditches.
Current law says "all surface waters that are capable of recreational use may be so used by the public without regard to the ownership of the land underlying the waters."
Irrigation ditches are excepted from that rule.
Welborn and Vincent's bill would change the definition of ditches so that natural channels modified by irrigation features would be considered manmade - and therefore would be off limits.
Requests for comment from Welborn and Vincent were not returned on Friday.
"This implicates most streams in Montana," said Montana Trout Unlimited director Bruce Farling. "If you've got a headgate or a wing dam that changes the bed elevation of a stream to get water to a ditch, then that channel would be off limits. If the water is return flow by half, it would also be off limits. That's most of the rivers in Montana late in the summer where there's irrigation."
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that Ravalli County's Mitchell Slough was a natural stream, over objections by landowners that it was an irrigation canal instead of a former river channel. Welborn has argued that roughly 6,000 irrigation streams in Montana are in similar controversy, and his bill would confirm they are private and off limits to public use.
Tawney countered that the bill would confuse rather than clarify the issue.
"When you look at the way the legislation is written, any structure on a stream makes it a ditch," Tawney said. "I don't want to fish ditches and I don't think anybody else does. But traditional streams, that's where I want to fish and want my daughter to fish."
In 2009, the Legislature passed a stream access law that confirmed the use of bridges to reach waterways on votes of 96-3 in the House and 48-2 in the Senate. Tawney argued that showed widespread state support for the principle that Montana's waterways are open for recreation.
"In Colorado, if you put a toe in the water and touch the bottom, you're trespassing," Tawney said. "That makes fishing a sport only for people with means, and that's not what we have in Montana."