At last, a Montana rivers bill that makes sense

 

A former professor of mine once said that building a house in a floodplain is like setting up a tent on the interstate just because no cars are coming by right at the moment. It defies common sense.

Yet, across western Montana in recent years, sprawling trophy homes have spread like a cancer along the banks of our most celebrated trout streams. You see them on the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Jefferson, Missouri -- just about every major river with trout in it and a road along it.

As a fisherman who regularly floats these rivers, I wince every time I see one of these new McMansions rise where cottonwoods once stood.  As a taxpayer who abhors the idea of subsidizing stupidity, it burns me up when I see a new house being built on ground that every local knows will be underwater during the next major flood.

Fortunately, the Montana Legislature will soon consider a bill called the Big Sky Rivers Act, which would steer new development away from 10 rivers that are under intense development pressure. These rivers -- all in the western half of the state -- are the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Flathead, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, Missouri, Smith and Yellowstone.

Specifically, the Big Sky Rivers Act would prohibit the construction of new homes, commercial buildings and wastewater treatment systems within 250 feet of the designated rivers.  It would also ensure that healthy streamside vegetation is maintained in order to minimize erosion and filter pollution from runoff.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), flood damages in the United States now exceed $6 billion annually. Much of this damage could be prevented by not building homes in known hazard areas like floodplains, barrier islands or the cut banks of powerful rivers.

Sadly, it's not just flooded-out homeowners who get stuck with the bill when floods happen. You and I pay much of the rebuilding costs. In a case that exemplifies everything that is wrong with our nation's floodplain development policies, one notorious home was flooded and rebuilt 31 times using U.S. taxpayer dollars.

You would think a bill that would save lives, save money and save some of our state's most prized recreational rivers would enjoy widespread support. Indeed, recent polls show that a huge majority of western Montanan residents want to keep development away from flood-prone rivers and critical fish and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, some of our legislators in Helena still don't get it. They don't see why building in flood hazard areas is a big problem. Or if they do, they choose to ignore it.  That's because when it comes to development-related matters, they tend to take their marching orders from Montana's modern-day copper kings – the real estate lobby.

Make no mistake, it was the real estate lobby that killed similar streamside setback bills during the last two legislative sessions.

Opponents of the Big Sky Rivers Act criticize it for two reasons.  First, they say it takes away local control by implementing a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, the act gives local governments the authority to come up with their own riverside development standards, as long as they accomplish the same general objectives of reducing flood damages, protecting water quality and preserving fish and wildlife habitat.

Second, critics claim the bill constitutes an illegal “takings” because it deprives riverfront landowners of the opportunity to build on their property.  But again, the act specifically allows local governments to grant variances in cases where a landowner's entire property is within the 250-foot building setback.

If past is prologue, the development lobby will try to defeat the Big Sky Rivers Act by bringing in sympathetic witnesses, who will testify that it would ruin their retirement dreams by rendering their riverfront property worthless. That's the kind of shameless stunt they've come to rely on. They obfuscate the facts with emotion because they know the truth is not on their side.

With the economy in recession and tax revenues falling by the week, the Legislature should be doing everything it can to eliminate wasteful spending.  By passing the Big Sky Rivers Act, we can stop subsidizing new development in obvious flood hazard areas and protect some of our most treasured rivers at the same time.

Scott Bosse is a contributor to Writers on the Range for High Country News (hcn.org). He directs aquatic conservation for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • POLICY AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...