Water unites and divides neighbors and communities. As regions grow, the use and utility of water changes as the concentration of residential and commercial land uses replaces more traditional agricultural uses. Water has long been a valuable resource in the nutrient-rich Gallatin Valley. In an agricultural context, water has historically been one of the uniting factors of the community.
As the valley has grown, the relationship between landowners and water use has evolved and as such so has the community. Since 1990, annual population growth in the Bozeman area has averaged 2.8 percent. Just in recent years, Bozeman has added approximately 1,850 residents between 2015 and 2016, census statisticians estimate, bringing the city population to 45,250 people. The Census Bureau estimates the overall growth rate for Bozeman’s Gallatin County at 3.7 percent, bringing it to a total population of 104,500.
Recently we visited the Gaffke Ranch in the Gallatin Valley. On a walk with Mike Gaffke, he pointed out a willow tree that used to get enough water every year to thrive. In recent years as the land upstream and further up on the irrigation ditch has been subdivided and developed, the willow tree has been thirsty. The most impactful part of the tour was not the low water component, but Mike's take on the changes to water availability. Mike seemed to be more concerned with the dissolution of community as a result of the decrease in agricultural water users than the water itself. In his account, water was a binding factor in his area. Neighbors and land owners used to work together to coordinate water use. Agricultural water users have a deep understanding of how water works on their land and in their valley - not just water in the creeks, but changes in the water table. Neighbors discussed turning on the ditch and sharing water, but the discussion built personal relationships which resulted in attending the wedding of each other's kids and helping out when neighbors were in need. Now, with commercial and residential water users making up the area, folks are less in touch with the changes to the water table as result of their water use than previous agricultural water users. As a result, neighbors talk less and the strength of community has weakened as personal connections are fewer.
Population growth and land use changes are dynamic, complicated situations. To address change and make sure that the agricultural community has a voice in the growth conversation, the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators provides a means for water users and landowners in the Gallatin Valley to join together to collectively guardian and advocate of the Gallatin River system and its historically decreed water rights. AGAI focuses on proactive involvement in all discussions and decisions related to issues impacting water rights. Mike Gaffke serves as the President for this active Gallatin Valley-area non-profit.