Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Whiskey is for drinking, water for fighting

by Tom Muri
| May 21, 2024 12:00 AM

In the West, “whiskey is for drinking, water for fighting.” The fight over the water that flows in and out of Flathead Lake is just beginning. These waters deserve fighting for and over.

The Flathead watershed includes all the land that drains into Flathead Lake and the Flathead River — a vast area stretching west from the Continental Divide, east to the Salish Mountains, north into Canada, and south to the Clark Fork River to the south.

Waters from the headwaters in Glacier National Park, the “Bob,” and other wild lands flow together, nourishing our communities, forests, and farms and providing endless recreational opportunities. Flathead, Stillwater, Whitefish and Swan rivers contribute to creating the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. This watershed drains 6 million acres of some of the most scenic landscapes imaginable.

The various valleys of the Flathead watershed were scoured by recurring glaciers, leaving a trail of alluvial and outwash deposits and glacial till. The glaciers formed many lakes, wetlands, floodplains, and wonderful Glacier National Park. The glaciers are almost gone as yearly snowpacks continue their downward spiral.

A healthy and viable Flathead watershed relies upon a feasible and healthy snowpack. The 2022-23 snowpack was neither. The 2023-24 snowpack is well below average as yearly precipitation continues to fall as rain rather than snow.

Besides lower water levels throughout the Flathead watershed, wildfire conflagration increasingly threatens the basin and northwest Montana. While not an exceptionally old man at 72, I remember the summers of my youth as relatively smoke-free and pleasant. Growing up in Whitefish, I cannot recall one house having air conditioning. Spring high school sports were played in cool, rainy weather. Baseball games throughout the spring and early summer were often played in the rain, with low, grey cover.

These cool springs and summers resulted in a viable snowpack that gradually released moisture through the summer into the watershed. Our streams, rivers, wetlands and lakes were healthy

The Montana summers of my old age are increasingly hot and smoky seasons spent indoors. My grandchildren are frequently forced indoors due to poor air quality. While we have plenty of whiskey nowadays, water in our snowpack continues to dwindle.

Rather than recognizing and collectively addressing or fighting this together, good-meaning people are taking sides and positions, often at odds with one another. The value of a full Flathead Lake in the summer is something that all of us want, but it will become more and more challenging to achieve unless meaningful solutions are forthcoming.

As the glaciers dwindle and snowpacks grow smaller each year, with less and less water stored in mountain snows throughout the Flathead watershed, fighting will grow. Rancor is already developing amongst Montanans and our communities. We must not let facts and science become the first casualty of this fight.

Two Montana newspapers, the Missoulian and The Daily Inter Lake, have provided timely and informative articles addressing these crucial issues. I write to encourage continuing this coverage as best they can, with limited staffing issues.

All Montanans need to be in this fight. As the Bible reminds us, fighting the good fight is one of the bravest and noblest of life’s experiences.

Tom Muri lives in Whitefish.