House Backs Bill Denying Anglers Access to Ditches

Posted on February 9, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — The right to whip a fly into most streams is near and dear to most Montanans and it almost swayed enough lawmakers to kill a measure that would define and then exempt irrigation ditches from the state’s stream access law.

Montana’s stream access law arose in the wake of a 1984 Montana Supreme Court ruling that allowed anglers, hikers and others to use the beds and banks any stream or river up to the high-water marks. The law has been controversial with landowners ever since.

The House voted 55-44 today to give its preliminary approval to House Bill 309, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon. He said it aims to exempt irrigation ditches from the access law and thereby protect the investments of nearly 6,000 family ranchers and farmers.

But critics warned that the definition of irrigation ditches could be extended to cover currently fished streams.

Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, argued that the bill would undermine the stream access law. He said lawmakers should be focusing instead on bills that create jobs.

“Little did I know that some of you had in mind putting a bunch of attorneys to work,” he said. “This is nothing more than a sore loser coming to the Legislature to try to get something back that he lost.”

The bill springs from a controversy in the Bitterroot Valley over public access to a slough that flows through property owned by rocker Huey Lewis. In 2008, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the slough was not an irrigation ditch and therefore subject to access.

The bill faces a final vote in the House tomorrow.

Posted in: Daily Grind