Water has always been a source of conflict along the Yellowstone, which is a lifeline for one-third of Montana’s 787,000 residents. In 1973 the state legislature faced a future of even greater demands on the river’s water: Synthetic-fuel plants proposed for eastern Montana coalfields would need billions of gallons year after year to convert coal into gas and liquid fuel. To establish an orderly system of water distribution, the legislature passed the 1973 Water Use Act.
When state officials began adding up requests for future water allocations from federal, state, local, and private interests, plus nearly 9,000 claims from existing river users, they totaled more than the river’s average 8.8 million acre-foot annual flow. The situation seemed impossible. But in 1978 Montana’s Board of Natural Resources and Conservation settled two huge requests when it ordered that 5.5 million acre-feet of water be left in the Yellowstone for the sake of both good water quality and a stable habitat for fish and wildlife.
Montana officials and payday loan consolidation companies have worked hard to accommodate everyone. And they have been bombarded with suggestions: Dam the river to catch the spring runoff, dam tributaries and divert spring runoff for storage, curtail growth, stop coal development. . .
“I suppose the answer depends on which stump you’re sitting on,” rancher Frank Grosfield said, “but one thing never changes in the West—control the water and you control the land.”
Billings, Montana’s largest city, is now a heavy user of Yellowstone water, but is even more absorbed in future energy development. Nearby in eastern Montana and Wyoming lie incredibly vast coal deposits, as well as gas, oil, and uranium.
From a distance Billings marks a clear change in the Yellowstone landscape. New houses and trailers leapfrog through old sugar beet fields on the outskirts of this northern Rocky Mountain energy capital. The population is growing 3 percent each year, hovering around 100,000 now, expected to hit 165,000 by the year 2000.
My first view of Billings was pleasantly impeded by the clusters of cottonwoods and willows along the riverbank. I was literally drifting into town, paddling a small inflatable yellow raft. Around me the Yellowstone was beginning to lose its mountain character, alternating between a few last, quick dashes around gravel bars and slow, deep turns under the remaining high buttes before the emptiness of the open plains. I beached my small craft on a bar in the middle of the river and stopped for a while to catch this change in mood.
Behind me the Beartooth Mountains rose, framing the river valley in a distant frieze of snow and blue haze. Ahead I could make out white plumes of steam drifting off an oil refinery, a power plant, a sugar beet mill. A new glass hotel, 23 stories tall, caught the sun—”biggest building from here to Seattle,” Montanans tell visitors.