Angry Anglers Flood Senate Hearing on Ditch Access Bill

Posted on March 8, 2011

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Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, testifies against House Bill 309 with horde of other opposition behind him,

By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — Anglers filled the Old Supreme Court Chamber Tuesday with reinforcements spilling onto the Rotunda floor in their campaign for the swift death of a bill to define and exempt irrigation ditches from public access.

While fewer than 20 voiced support for the bill, about 100 spoke against it. The opposition’s arguments came down to lawyers, rods and money.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said House Bill 309 would only cause a lot of money to be spent on lawyers to get the law overturned so fishermen could get back to their favorite streams.

“In fact, this would be economic development for lawyers,” Shockley said. His speech drew a round of applause from the more than 300 people who turned out to show their distaste for the measure.

HB 309 sponsor, Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, said he is an avid sportsman and that his aim is not to restrict access to recreational waters. The bill, he said, is  about protecting the property rights and investments of irrigators.

Supporters voiced concerns about liability and safety issues, and most of all, the right to know who was on their land.

“The sportsman are changing and the times are changing and we need to make sure these ditches are excluded,” said former Rep. Ed Grady.

During committee questions, Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, said it seemed to him the definition of ditch has worked fine for the past 25 years and that the bill was really about trespass and private property rights, which is pretty well covered by other laws.

In his closing, Welborn asked to work with the committee on amendments to clarify some sections and possibly remove others.

The controversy stems from a 2008 Montana Supreme Court ruling in a Bitterroot Valley case involving a slough running along property owned by musician Huey Lewis.

Lewis’ lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the waterway was exempt from Montana’s 1985 stream access because it had been used for irrigation.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

Posted in: Daily Grind