The Connection Between Open Lands and Healthy Waterways

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(April 27, 2018) Written by Peter Brown, GGWC Vice Chair 

In 1998, the Gallatin County Commissioners recognized that growth and development in our watershed was a major challenge and tasked a group of community members (Open Space Task Force) with exploring options to manage it. After researching growth management tools from around the country, the Open Space Task Force proposed funding conservation easements as an effective, incentive based tool to protect large blocks of land from subdivision and development. In 2000, and again in 2004, Gallatin County citizens voted for two $10 million bonds to help secure conservation easements and protect our valley’s open land.

17 years later, the final dollars from the bond fund have been allocated, and an amazing legacy of conservation projects are complete. With $20 million in funding, the Gallatin County Open Lands Program delivered conservation outcomes and leveraged local dollars at an unprecedented rate. The Board of the Open Lands Program, comprised of volunteer community members, in partnership with the County Commissioners and local land trusts have protected nearly 50,000 acres of open land by purchasing conservation easements from willing landowners on over 50 properties, including agricultural land, wildlife habitat, rivers and streams, and scenic open space.  $2.5 million of the original bond funds have been spent on parks and recreation. County dollars have been stretched and leveraged to access public and private funding at a rate of 5:1 (a 500% return on our community’s investment); in addition to the conservation benefits we’re seeing on the ground.  We came together as a community to protect working farms and ranches and we have a lot to be proud of.

At this point, you might be wondering how open space preservation and the purchase of conservation easement can lead to watershed health and the protection of critical waterways that carry the lifeblood of our watershed? And furthermore, why is water the lifeblood of our watershed? All residents in our watershed need water to promote healthy living, provide access to locally grown foods, and allow for recreational pursuits; in the case of industrial, municipal and agricultural uses— we need water to support our businesses by producing income to support our families and pay our employees. So yes, we all need clean healthful and abundant water to support our lives.

By preserving open space with conservation easements along waterways in our watershed, we are protecting those naturally flowing streams from the impact of high density development, runoff from hard top road surfaces and parking lots, and dispersed non-point pollution sources related to failing septic systems and other low concentration pollution sources related to human uses in our watershed. In aggregate all of these non-point source pollution sources can lead to an accumulated impact that begins to incrementally impact instream water quality where we expect clean water to support fish, provide recreation, allow diversion of water for crops, and extract water for other human uses. Maintaining a non-developed buffer along our streams through the use of conservation easements retains the traditional open space and agricultural uses that have dominated the landscape for many years. This buffer of riparian vegetation and wetlands allows the stream to meander and clean the water before it flows downstream to our neighbors outside our watershed.

For this reason alone, Greater Gallatin Watershed Council (GGWC) applauds the work of the conservation organizations and citizens that came together in the late 1990’s to protect our last pristine waterways and wetlands. At that time, as is now; land use conversation was recognized as the most relevant natural resource threat in our watershed that had the potential to impact the quality of our lives and the future of our precious water resources. Since its inception, GGWC has partners with many groups to identify impacts in our watershed and begin working on the restoration of resources impacted by past poor management and impairments that at one time seemed innocuous. GGWC is proud to be a part of the solution and challenges all of you to ask what you can do for your “home watershed”.

With the Gallatin County Open Lands Program funding entirely allocated and with new projects ready and waiting in the wings, we must consider the future of our watershed and the future of our working farms/ranches and open spaces. The Open Lands Program has a track record of being one of the best tools in the county to manage growth where it makes sense. Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in Montana and has been for nearly two decades. Things aren’t slowing down. Open lands (primarily privately owned agricultural operations), are being converted to residential use at a rate four times higher than the national average. Renewing funding for this program is critical for maintaining the rural feel and agricultural heritage of our watershed.

In March of this year, the Gallatin County Commission voted unanimously to place a 4.5 mill levy question on the June 5th primary ballot to support the Gallatin County Open Lands Program. If the levy is approved by voters, it will provide funding for this program over the next 15 years. The levy will raise over $20,000,000 for conservation, costing taxpayers approximately $6.00 a year for every $100,000 in property value. This is a bargain for a county that has already demonstrated that it is interested in taking the long view as we plan for a vibrant working landscape that provides open space opportunities for farms, ranches, wildlife, and people.

Gallatin County cannot risk losing funding for this program right now. GGWC urges you to carefully consider how you can help protect our pristine watershed from land use conversation, which can and will have long-term detrimental impacts on our water quality. Check out this website for more information on the Gallatin County Open Space Program Levy proposal: