Drought triggers US water wars, pits Montana against Wyoming

Sandy gullies and endless sage brush offer little hint of the watersports mecca once envisioned for this small town near the Montana line.

Back when the Bighorn River flowed strongly out of the Wind River mountains, it backed up 72-miles (116-kilometer) from the Yellowtail Dam in Montana south to the outskirts of Lovell a man-made lake that once drew almost half a million visitors annually.

But for eight years drought has choked the river, chopping 30 miles (48 kilometers) off Bighorn Lake in recent summers and prompting tourists to go elsewhere. And now a U.S. senator from Montana anxious to tap the reservoir to feed a downstream trout fishery could end Lovell's recreational plans for good.

Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrat Max Baucus, has introduced legislation to ensure a steady flow of water out of Yellowtail Dam, further depleting the lake.

The bill stakes out yet another front in the water wars breaking out across the Northern Plains.

As the worst dry spell since the 1930s shows no signs of abating, many states are squabbling with each other and federal officials.

Nebraska and Kansas are wrangling for control of irrigation water from the Republican River. South Dakota has demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers stop drawing down reservoirs in the state because it is hurting recreational fishing. Barge companies along the Missouri River in Iowa are demanding the Corps release more water so their vessels can operate.

And Wyoming and Montana are fighting two more water battles in the Tongue and Powder river basins. Montana officials claim Wyoming is diverting too much water from the rivers before they cross the state line, sparking a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit, reports Ap.

The crisis is a bitter pill for Lovell residents, such as 84-year-old Hermina "Minnie" Gams, who was among 73 families forced to give up 30,870 acres (12,348 hectares) of farmland in the 1960s to make way for the recreation area.

"The only thing that I think will help is more snow and more rain," she said. "I don't think anything that mankind can do will help it."

Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant points to promises made by federal officials before the construction of Yellowtail Dam.

"They made those promises and they need to come out and do the full development like they promised," he said. "If they're not going to do it, they should give the land back and it can be put back into productive use."