City poised to transfer water rights as Flynn-Lowney acquisition moves forward

Members of a coalition supporting the city’s purchase of the Flynn-Lowney ditch survey the ditch diversion at the east end of Broadway Island on the Clark Fork River. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current file)

As the City of Missoula looks to acquire and decommission the Flynn-Lowney Ditch, it’s now poised to transfer the water rights to historic users and relinquish surplus rights to bolster instream flow in the Clark Fork River.

The city is working to purchase the ditch for roughly $1 million, most of it coming from Transportation Impact and Water Development Fees. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency also provided funding to permit new water rights associated with the ditch’s retirement.

“As part of that, we want to make sure the remaining users will be made whole by transferring their water rights,” said Ross Mollenhauer, the city’s engineering manager. “The remaining rights that will not be used by these users will be transferred back to instream flows.”

The ditch, owned by the Hellgate Valley Irrigation Co., takes in water at the head of Broadway Island near Silver Park and carries it west toward the greater Mullan area. It’s there where the city and county are investing nearly $19 million to place the infrastructure needed to guide current and future development.

Acquiring the irrigation ditch would allow the city to decommission it, and city officials have said it would net nearly $2 million in savings for the Mullan BUILD project by reducing the need for culverts and storm water drainage.

The ditch is pictured in blue as it spreads across the Mullan area while planned transportation corridors are shown in red.

Ryan Sudbury with the City Attorney’s Office said it would also place more water back into the Clark Fork River. A recent study suggested it has more value there than as a source of municipal water in the growing Mullan area.

“We did analysis on the amount of rights associated with the ditch and the surface rights we’d be obtaining as part of this (ditch) acquisition, and it wasn’t enough to move the needle on that front,” he said. “If we wanted to put a new municipal water supply well out there (Mullan), we’d be relying on the existing rights we obtained from the Mountain Water Co. acquisition.”

Sudbury said the Clark Fork Coalition is working with the city to help market surplus water rights to the Columbia Basin Water Transactions program. While selling the water rights as instream flow isn’t certain, he said, it could carry a value between $100,000 and $200,000.

“These would be more valuable as instream flow for fish and wildlife and habitat,” he said. “We decided to pursue this venture with the Clark Fork Coalition rather than preserve them for municipal water use.”

He added, “There’s also some unknowns with marketing water for instream flow. It has to have a definite benefit, and that water transaction fund needs to find there’s a benefit.”

Purchase of Flynn-Lowney Ditch could ease Clark Fork erosion, aid Mullan growth