Saturday, February 17, 2007

Coal-bed methane and irrigation farming

Agriculture is the ultimate renewable resource: the sun keeps providing energy and the heavens keep providing water. All we need to do is take care of the soil.

Today's Gazette had an article about water quality along the Tongue River, and the possible relationship between soil damage and coal-bed methane waste water.

These things can be very hard to tease out, since many western rivers like the Tongue River are very saline to begin with. Irrigation has a cumulative effect on land when it comes to increasing saline content, so some salinization of soil is a natural effect of irrigating land year after year.

But the last thing that is needed is something to speed the process along, and if a process were to be designed to speed water and soil salinization, it would be coal-bed-methane extraction combined with release of untreated water.

In the comments section of the Gazette article, someone says that since Roger Muggli is the last user on the Tongue River, every other upstream farmer should also be affected if CBM were the culprit.

Hardly. The way that irrigation farming along western rivers works is that the farther downstream you get, the more saline the water gets. Water percolates through the soil during irrigation, and the run-off is higher in sediment, minerals, and salts than was the water that went onto the soil.

If salinization levels in the Tongue River were rising, it is precisely the last user whose land would first show the effects.

Montana is farther downstream than Wyoming is on the rivers in question, so our farmland will be the first to show adverse effects from salinization. There are other things that can cause it, such as poor farming practices, and those are things that the DEQ needs to figure out.

But as anyone familiar with irrigation agriculture knows, once certain soils becomes salinated, it is virtually impossible to reclaim them.

The Northern Plains Resource Council is a polarizing organization, in no small part because 80% of their money comes from out-of-state and they apparently refuse to make public who their donors are and how much each gives. The NPRC is asking for trouble in Montana by not going out of their way to avoid the appearance of being pawns for outside environmentalist interests.

On the other hand, the Republican party in this state needs be very, very sure that they know what they are doing when it comes to things that affect water and soil quality for farmers and ranchers in eastern Montana. That part of the state has been rock-solid Republican for years, and in our close Montana elections, Republicans need to be able to run the table out there in God's country -- we didn't in 2006, and Jon Tester was our reward.

If we advocate, in the name of economic development, policies that end up rendering farmland unusable along the Tongue and Powder Rivers, we will be paying a political price for decades to come.

For conservatives, there should be few things more worth conserving than our agricultural lands.

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