The editorial on House Bill 309 in the March 2 Beacon (“HB 309 Does Not Endanger Access”) involves a willful misreading of the bill and makes many misrepresentations to support legislators’ point that the bill does not endanger access. HB 309 is all about endangering access. The bill is another attempted end-run around the 2008 Montana Supreme Court ruling that Mitchell Slough in the Bitterroot is clearly a natural channel and open for public recreation. HB 309 is meant to reverse that legal ruling and will lock you out of hundreds of miles of Montana waterways for the profit of a few.
Under the current Stream Access Law, it is already illegal to recreate on an irrigation ditch. “The right of the public to make recreational use of surface waters does not include, without permission … the recreational use of waters while diverted away from a natural water body for beneficial use…” “’Diverted away from a natural water body’” means a diversion of surface water through a constructed water conveyance system, including but not limited to: (a) an irrigation or drainage canal or ditch.” Sounds pretty clear to me. Would you know an irrigation ditch if you saw one?
HB 309 seeks to redefine a ditch using confusing language as, “an irrigation or drainage canal or ditch system that may include natural features incorporated into the water conveyance system in conjunction with constructed features…” Using that language, a natural side channel like Mitchell Slough becomes an irrigation ditch as would many other natural stream channels in the state. Don’t be fooled by the “property rights” argument used by proponents. This bill will take away your right to recreate on many Montana streams and transfer those rights to wealthy landowners for their own private fiefdom. This bill will only result in Montana spending millions of dollars to defend another indefensible law.
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