From Rivers to Beer (and Back Again)

Saturday Apr. 2nd, 2011

When people think of Montana, they think about fishing, big skies and beautiful winding rivers. What most people don’t realize is that there are over 4,000 miles of dewatered streams in Montana. Those streams are representative of tens of thousands of others in the West that have suffered a similar fate. Why? Because there’s just not enough water for all the people who would like to use it. However, there is a silver lining to this disturbing tale, and it has to do with water rights, economics and beer.

When people first settled in the west, there was far more water than people who wanted to use it. As more people arrived, those who were there first worried that there would not be enough water for them to continue making their livelihoods. Particularly concerned were farmers and mining companies. Lawsuits resulted in three precedent-setting cases: Thorp vs. Woolman (1870), Thorp vs. Freed (1872), and Montana Supreme Court Rules (1921). These cases are rooted in the “Prior Appropriations Doctrine” and resulted in those who claimed a right to water the earliest having “senior water rights”. In simple terms, whoever was there first may take as much water as the water right allows, as long as it is for a “beneficial use”. Anyone arriving later had a right to a portion of the remaining water.

The water rights system works fairly well. However, in the setting of relative water scarcity, there is a major flaw with the system as it stands. If a water rights holder does not use their right, it can be taken from them. This creates a disincentive for senior water rights holders to allow water to flow when they have no use for it. Instead, it encourages them to divert it even when there is no need to do so.

This scenario could create the urge in citizens or activist groups to fight for the environmental rights of fish and fishermen and would-be recreational users of what are now dried up streams. However, the creative environmentalists at Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) came up with a much simpler solution that involves no litigation or government involvement.

BEF created an economic device called Water Restoration Certificates (WRCs), which companies that use water can buy from water rights holders to offset their water footprint. The certificates are for specific 1,000 gallon increments of water which are left in a river or other waterway. WRCs are numbered and tracked by Markit Environmental Registry to ensure accurate accounting of the amount of water that is not used by water rights holders. The program is administered in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which certifies that water is returned to the streams in a way that creates maximum environmental benefit.

The WRC system is quantifiable, and beneficial to the water rights holder, the business that purchases the certificates, and the environment. It also benefits Montana’s economy, since waterways represent a significant economic resource to the state, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists each year who spend millions of dollars on fishing and rafting related activities.

BEF, working closely with The Clarke Fork Coalition, has negotiated with water rights holders near Helena, Montana to restore the flow in Prickly Pear Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River. In 2010, Montana’s largest brewer, Big Sky Brewing Company, signed a three year contract to purchase WRCs that will result in more than 10 million gallons of water being restored to the Prickly Pear Creek.

“Not only do we depend on Montana’s water resources to produce our world-class beers, but beer drinking and fly-fishing are two deeply rooted Montana pastimes and contributors to the State economy” said Chris Corbin, Sales Representative of Big Sky Brewing Company. In a recent press release Corbin stated “We are impressed with BEF’s WRC program because it is a private-sector solution with easily quantifiable results.”

BEF has not only connected water rights holders with brewers in Montana, but has sold WRCs to hotels and tea companies in the northwest and high tech companies in the southwest. This has resulted in the restoration of more than 4 billion gallons of water to degraded ecosystems. They are also working to expand this program to other states.

In addition to the WRC program, BEF also sells independently certified Carbon Offsets and Renewable Energy Certificates, which support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the development of new renewable energy facilities. BEF reinvests its net revenues to fund its Model Watershed and Solar 4R Schools programs. To learn more about BEF’s mission to “fundamentally transform the relationship between humans and the earth’s energy and water resources,” visit
Sources for this article include,, and

Rebecca and Pierre Musy are former Bozeman residents, currently living just outside Washington, D.C. with their two native-Montanan children. They are all working together to create a future for their family and the world that is harmonious and sustainable.