10 Questions with our Program Director

Earlier this month the popular fly fishing blog Chi Wulff interviewed our program director.

10 Questions with Wade Fellin, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper

repost from MARK MCGLOTHLIN on Chiwulff.com  MARCH 7, 2016
image: Becca Skinner

It’s our pleasure to bring this interview with Wade Fellin, Montana native, long time fly fishing guide and now also the Program Director at Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. Thanks to Jess McGlothlin for her help in rounding up notes and images from Wade.

You have a strong family history both in Montana and on the water. What has led you to the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper?

In 1881, my great-great grandfather homesteaded and built one of the first cattle ranches in what is today the Big Hole Valley. My father, Craig, founded the Big Hole Lodge in 1984 and I have the privilege of spending each summer on the Big Hole guiding several rivers of Southwest Montana, leading my clients into landscapes many will never experience. I hopped a train to Philadelphia when I turned 18, studied philosophy and business but it didn’t take long to realize I belong back here in Montana on these rivers. My interest in conservation began at a young age attending watershed meetings with local ranchers, business owners, and residents.

When I came back from college I took my father’s seat on the board of the Big Hole River Foundation. In 2014, I graduated law school in Missoula and joined Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, a regional water advocacy organization focused exclusively on protecting clean water in Southwest and West-Central Montana. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper investigates pollution issues that affect our communities and rivers, patrols waterways and landscapes, and works with stakeholders to protect and improve the health of local waterways. We also hold polluters and our decision makers accountable by enforcing and improving environmental laws through advocacy and litigation, water quality science, and educating and empowering the public with tools available to be local water stewards.

How does the Waterkeeper Alliance differ from other conservation organizations / methods?

Two characteristics that have long distinguished Waterkeeper organizations are their grassroots focus, homing in on local water quality issues that impact the health and well-being of their local water body and local citizens, and also their commitment to enforcing the law, such as clean water protections found under the federal Clean Water Act. History shows that environmental regulators have consistently failed to enforce environmental laws; Waterkeeper organizations use a combination of sound science, opportunities for citizen action, and lawsuits to stop illegal pollution and hold decision makers accountable to protect and improve water resources.

image: Hank Welles

Any ideas on the best way to balance conservation, agriculture, and fishing?

Montana is a unique state, not the least because it possesses a state constitution which recognizes, and protects, both private property rights (in the water context meaning appropriative right to use water) and public trust resources (in the water context, the right to healthy rivers with viable fisheries). In turn, that visionary constitution lays out a blueprint for how Montana should balance conservation, agriculture, and fishing. Unfortunately, as currently interpreted the law of Montana gives water users the right to essentially dry up streams altogether. From a qualitative standpoint, agriculture is not required to treat return flows to protect downstream water quality, although discrete sources of pollution – like cities, construction sites, and industry – must treat wastewater to protect downstream water quality.

One can argue persuasively that the traditional appropriative right – such as that held by agriculture – to use water must yield some amount to protect the public use and conservation interests enshrined in the public trust. As currently interpreted, the balance of rights is tipped in favor of water appropriation, rather than the public trust and conservation interests. Although some may point out that dewatering or agricultural-based pollution only harms certain stretches of waterways and that the public may fish and recreate on other stretches, Montana’s population is forecast to grow rapidly and as urbanization increases it is in everyones best interest to utilize rural and agricultural lands to protect stream health.

A more equitable balance would, quantitatively, require each water user to temporarily reduce his or her diversion in times of shortage to ensure adequate flows always remain to support river and fishery health and at the same time would require fisherman to temporarily stop fishing when rivers reach critical temperatures. Local river organizations have implemented such a plan on the Big Hole River and it ought to be implemented at a state level. Likewise, such a balance would include equitable pollution controls on agriculture similar to those imposed on every other sector in Montana, in essence leveling the playing field and making sure every sector does their fair share to protect Montana’s water resources. Some rivers are tantalizingly close to flows needed to sustain diverse life, and many are relatively healthy except in hot-spot pollution zones or in years of true drought. For example, Montana FWP estimates that the Big Hole grayling needs a minimum of 60 cfs flows in the Wisdom area to keep the river and its fish healthy. Likewise, even and consistent enforcement of water pollution controls – for instance those on harmful industries – has been proven to work, making a strong case for the need of Montana to revise its approach to water quality protection law and more equitably divide responsibility among sectors responsible for using – and affecting – local waterways. The ranching community is coming to the table to plan for the future and the fishing community, which has largely been viewed as recreation, needs to come join in the conservation at the hands-on level.

What issues are you closely monitoring at the moment?

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is guided by two basic principles in setting our work plans: (1) engaging on issues that sound science proves are the most significant sources of pollution affecting local waterways; and (2) engaging on issues that affect local citizens, waterways, and which concerns the public.

With that framework in mind, we are currently assessing ten years worth of water science that describes ongoing challenges, and sometimes opportunities, for key local waterways in SW and West-Central Montana. This includes field work where we perform in-the-field surveys, looking for changes in local waterway biology or water chemistry, as well as includes examining fisheries population data, and outreach to concerned local businesses and outfitters. We also systematically review, every month, water pollution permits issued by the state and EPA with the dual goals of ensuring those permits comply with legal standards, as well as contain sufficient protections for local water quality and community health.

Last, we engage local, state, and federal decision makers in policymaking that affects waterways and community health by means of public comments, holding public events, and participating in stakeholder groups. For instance, we are the leading Montana organization watchdogging new water quality standards policies from the state, and the leading organization holding the state accountable to improve water pollution permits applicable to big cities.

How do you think we can best involve recreational anglers and sportsmen in conserving our local waterways?

Fishermen are lucky enough to be on the front lines with the opportunity to effect the most change. Rather than ignoring the problems and continuing traditional practices in the face of a changing environment, we ought to be leading by example to ensure a healthy tomorrow for the rivers of Montana. And while the #keepemwet campaign and rubber instead of felt campaigns are important, we need to do more and on a much larger scale. It is critical for fishermen to know – and support -their local watershed advocates by becoming members of these local organizations. National conservation organizations do great work, however, those folks aren’t usually the boots on the ground looking at real-time pollution concerns. The future of our fisheries need us to do more than keep fish wet and clean-up tippets and membership provides a key means of communication for understanding – and solving – local river and fisheries problems: see something concerning on your last fishing trip – tell the local river advocates!

What’s been your most interesting experience as an angler?

The beauty of this sport is the opportunity to connect with nature on a deep level and in a unique way every time you string up a rod. I’ve celebrated the catch and release of a trophy trout with an entire community, seen countless spectacular sunrises and sunsets, encountered bears, been chased by moose, and nearly drowned. But what is most interesting to me is how many people take these instances for granted and plan to go experience them later, after they’re able to retire and when they have time. Go experience them now, while they’re still here, and spend the rest of your time working to preserve these places so your children have the opportunity to run like hell through the woods from wild animals!

image: Becca Skinner

What’s the one fly you always make sure is in your box?

My uncle and I used to play hop-scotch every August, fishing pocket to pocket in the mountain streams of SW Montana. We’d see who could catch the most fish on a classic size #14 stimulator before it fell apart. Stimulators dry quickly, land lightly, and look buggy enough to imitate a number of mountain insects throughout the season. One year he came limping back to the fly shop with a broken toe, a big grin, holding an unraveled fly and gloating about the fifty fish he’d landed!

Favorite species to pursue on the fly, and why?

Brown trout are the most fun to fish for because of their cunning. The rainbows are the most fun to catch because of their acrobatics. Whitefish have worked wonders for getting new anglers hooked on the “tug” and saved many a day in the dog days of summer. The grayling are unique to the Big Hole, they’re a disappearing arctic fish, and they’re extremely elegant. But my favorite is the west slope cutthroat. They’re native, feisty, love to eat on top, fight like hell, and they’re the species that we’ll be in danger of losing next if we don’t shift our land-use paradigm.

You can only bring five items on a trip / guide day. What makes the cut?

(1.) High quality polarized glass lenses are worth every penny. It’s a beautiful world and you should see it in deep color and without glare.

Fly rods are a lot like skis, find (2.) one you love and get good with it. Buying a new top sheet every year isn’t good for your pockets or your technique.

I’ve ditched vests and gone to a (3.) lightweight waterproof backpack. Orvis makes a great one with plenty of room for (4.) a good raincoat. Lastly, there’s a leather craftsman named Goertzen out of Missoula who makes the handiest and most (5.) durable fishing lanyard i’ve come across. It neatly holds all your tools, tippets, and flies and I’d be lost without it these days.

image: Hank Welles

So what’s next—what’s on the docket for 2016?

Three big-ticket items folks should keep on their radar.

First, the foreign mining company – Tintina Resources – has officially applied for a copper mining license, located in the headwaters of Montana’s famed Smith River. This proposal is a classic example of the wrong project in the wrong place, unnecessarily risking a key headwater of the Missouri, not to mention the important values, local economy, and recreational opportunities the Smith currently supports.

Second, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) provided notice to the public last week that is ready to perform environmental reviews of the proposed Clark Canyon Dam Hydroelectric Project, sited at the Beaverhead River’s headwaters outside Dillon, MT. Everyone who cares about the Beaverhead has the right to submit comments to FERC urging them to carefully consider the hydro proposal and its potential to cause, contribute to, or exacerbate environmental issues. Your comments to FERC are critical to ensuring any final hydropower license contains science-based conditions that protect the river, fisheries, and important local economies! It is very important that the public make their voice heard now. FERC agreed to waive normal environmental review procedures or requests for additional, necessary scientific studies because it believes all relevant environmental issues are known and have been adequately studied. However, all relevant science isn’t being considered! Neither FERC nor the applicant are looking at emerging science detailing recent, harmful algal blooms and clarity problems on the Upper Beaverhead during 2014 and 2015, or examining the potential of a new hydropower facility to contribute to or worsen those water quality problems. This means the current public comment period is the only near-term opportunity citizens have to weigh-in on FERC’s review of the proposed Clark Canyon Hydroelectric Facility. We have provided two easy opportunities to get involved on our website.

Last, we’re hoping to publish – by the end of the year – the first in a series of “River Report Cards.” The concept is that the Upper Missouri River Basin contains some of our nation’s last, best rivers supporting fabulous fisheries, thousands of families’ drinking water, not to mention untold numbers of local business. It is critical that we understand long-term trends in water quality, fisheries viability, and local land use patterns so that we can effectively target areas affected by pollution or hot-spot issues, as well as protect critical headwater regions and their cool, clean flows. We’ll be holding a series of “Meet Your Waterkeeper” events in cities across the basin to discuss all of these issues further. These events are opportunities to meet our staff, learn more about your local rivers, as well as chime-in and tell your local water advocates about any water issues on your mind! We’re a grassroots-based organization covering a huge, 25,000 sq. miles area – we want to meet local folks who care about clean water and happy fish!

Ed.-Thanks to Wade and the team at UMWK for taking the time to answer questions and chat about critical issues in the expanse of the upper Missouri watershed.

Beaverhead Dam
image: Brian Wheeler