Irrigators and water users along the Lower Yellowstone River are fighting to have a federal injunction that's halting construction of a fish bypass to an intake diversion dam outside of Glendive lifted.
According to Jim Brower, the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager, since 1909, the dam has reliably provided water to over 58,000 acres of farmland.
But controversy surrounding the Defender of Wildlife’s efforts to save the wild pallid sturgeon has the Lower Yellowstone Diversion Dam’s future in question.
"The irony is that the judge doesn't have the power to remove the dam because it's law from the Congress and the Senate," Brower said. "So they're stopping construction of the only fish passage that has been proven to be good for both the environment and the farmer and approved by two separate environmental studies to the highest standards over concerns that theoretically, it might not be good enough."
The economic impact of irrigation on eastern Montana is valued at over $54 million and without water, the agriculture industry could be devastated.
"We have pictures taken by the surveyors in 1905 and 1907 that show this entire valley as just being nothing but high plains, arid desert with sand, and gravel bars with maybe a single tree every couple of hundred acres that couldn't support one cow and calf pair," Brower said.
He added that the area has since moved to being the highest density population of large mammal wildlife in eastern Montana or western North Dakota.
The dam is also very important to non-farmers and ranchers.
"Right now, we have five communities whose drinking wells who have been proven by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology are totally dependent on the shallow water recharge provided by the main canal," Brower said.
Ultimately, the decision to put in a fish bypass for the pallid sturgeon will be made about 1,150 miles from the area in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Farmers and ranchers are fearful that if the injunction isn't lifted, it will set a dangerous precedent against irrigation and water use, which would be devastating in a state whose largest economy is agriculture.