City denies harming a critical trout spawning habitat, says it has to put the community’s water supply before one family’s wishes
By Victoria Eavis MONTANA FREE PRESS
A couple that has been fighting for years with the city of Bozeman over water rights is now going to spend large sums on ads aimed at winning over the city’s residents.
Lance and Siri Gilliland, who live on the property that is home to Lyman Creek, which supplies Bozeman with 20% of its water, have been fighting a losing battle over the city’s usage of the resource for six years.
Now, the couple is resorting to a public awareness campaign and has hired a PR firm to execute it for them. The campaign, which starts Wednesday, includes 15- and 30-second TV spots that will run over multiple weeks, in addition to digital and social media components.
“It sounds pretty selfish that we just want [the creek] for us, but it’s a bit bigger picture,” Siri Gilliland said.
The bigger picture, the couple says, is about the wildlife. Lyman Creek is a brown and rainbow trout spawning habitat that helps to supply fish farther downstream into Bridger Creek.
But it’s no secret that Bozeman has a rapidly increasing need for water.
As climate change increasingly impacts an already dry area, the public will likely be confronted with the question of whether the water should be used to supply a booming city or maintain a trout spawning area.
“The last thing we wanted to do is go have a public awareness campaign on this, but we feel like we have no choice,” Lance Gilliland said. “We just want to make sure everybody is aware of the ramifications of what [the city is] going to do to the wildlife habitat.”
The battle has already been fought in both district court and state Supreme Court, and the Gillilands lost at both levels.
The Gillilands alleged that the city is diverting water improperly and at levels above what it is entitled to.
The case, however, was decided not on arguments pertaining to the water, but whether the couple, as private landowners, had standing to sue under the Montana Water Use Act.
“It was decided on the procedure and not the merits,” said Ryan Mattick, a water rights attorney not connected to the case. “There was no factual determination on whether the city was in violation of the Montana Water Use Act.”
While most of the water flows on their property, the Gillilands only have junior water rights to the city’s senior water rights. Like many Western states, the water users who first used the water from a source have priority of use over other water users who use the water at a later date.
The clash began when the couple started looking into who had rights to the water on their property shortly after they purchased the 350 acres in 2014. After some research and the hiring of a water consultant, they first filed a complaint with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation over a water diversion structure that was improperly installed by the city in 2008. Because the DNRC — which did not respond to a request for comment for this story — did not take action like they’d hoped, the couple then went through the courts.
Now, they find themselves battling the city in state water court over the extent of the use of existing rights. It’s unclear when a decision in that case will be reached.
“At its core, the water court process is designed to quantify and qualify all of the individual uses of water within Montana,” Mattick said.
The battle also appears to have left a bad taste in the city’s mouth.
“A few years ago, a couple from Houston, Texas, by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Lance Gilliland purchased several large parcels of land in the Lyman Creek Watershed for a vacation home,” Lain Leoniak, the former water resources manager for the city of Bozeman, wrote in a memo to city officials in 2017.
Contacted this earlier in October, a Bozeman spokesperson said the city hadn’t seen the advertising campaign and wouldn’t specifically comment, though it disputes the Gillilands’ allegations. The city’s outside counsel, Bozeman lawyer Peter Scott, declined to comment. The city also declined to say how much it has spent on legal fees to defend its water rights in the various cases brought by the Gillilands, but did say it typically has outside water counsel and did not hire Scott specifically for this case.
The PR campaign will invite residents to contact the city commissioners, and the couple said they may rally people to comment at commission meetings. But that’s only if locals are on board — the Gillilands said they can “only hope” that response to the campaign will be positive.
The 350-acre property off of Bridger Canyon Drive with a clear view of the College “M” has two houses on the property, including a sprawling stone home.
The creek, which runs just yards away from the house, is about 1.75 miles long and roughly a mile of it is on their property.
The Gillilands split their time between Houston, where Lance works as a banker, and Bozeman. The couple bought the property in 2014. Siri moved to Bozeman in the 1970s as a middle-schooler, grew up in the city and went to Montana State University.
They planned to retire to their Bozeman home, but they say expenses from fighting the city over the creek has pushed back their retirement date.
The Gillilands estimate they’ve spent six figures on the battle so far.
While the Gillilands’ battle over the creek did not begin as a trout-saving venture, they insist it’s now motivated “a lot” by the fish and maintaining the spawning ground.
Pat Byorth, director of Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project, who signed onto an amicus brief supporting the Gillilands, said Lyman Creek “produces an unusual number of young fish.”
“It would interrupt a huge amount of recruitment into the system so there would be fewer trout” if the stream went below healthy levels, he added.
While the trout need a flow of only a couple of cubic feet per second to survive, the Gillilands’ chief concern is that all the surface water of the creek will be diverted. They’re convinced that the city has every intent to do so.
“They will need to take water from up there for sure,” Lance Gilliland said. “It’s a question of how much more water.”
The city disputes that statement.
“The city has no plans to de-water Lyman Creek and hurt the fish population,” said Takami Clark, spokesperson for Bozeman.
The same was true in 2017, according to an internal city memo, which stated that the city of Bozeman “has no intention of diverting or using any more water than what was properly authorized at the time the Gillilands purchased the properties a few years ago for their vacation home.”
That said, as Bozeman’s population balloons and the effects of climate change become more prominent, there’s an increasingly dire need for water. The last time the city increased its diversion of Lyman Creek water was in 2008, and it’s well known that Bozeman is fast-approaching a water crisis.
Water has been limited in the area for a while, largely due to decreasing snowpack and hotter temperatures. Snowpack is vital in Bozeman’s water equation, as the other 80% of the city’s water comes from snowmelt that feeds Sourdough Creek and Hyalite Reservoir.
What’s more, Bozeman was one of the fastest-growing areas in Montana over the last decade. Gallatin County, encompassing Bozeman, added 3,211 new residents from 2020 to 2021 for an annual increase of 2.7%.
“They don’t have the right to the water just because they’re a growing city,” Byorth said.
Clark said the city is committed to protecting the creek for the community, “not just one family.”
“We cannot overstate how essential this creek is to the security of our water supply, and we continue to defend these rights for the benefit of our entire community,” Clark added.
In recent years, the city has begun exploring whether it can get more water from underground — a process that is already happening at Lyman Creek — or outside of the region.
“We need to get serious about water,” Commissioner Jennifer Madgic said last year. “We can’t keep living like we have an endless supply.”
Lance Gilliland does not deny that reality.
“There’s no doubt that the city needs more water,” he said. “But what’s the cost? How much of the environment are they gonna destroy to get that water? What’s the tradeoff?”
This conflict will likely see some inflection points in the coming months as the Gillilands go public with their campaign.
“If this all comes out and the entire community says, ‘No fine, we need to take as much water as we can, go ahead and dry up every creek if you want,’ if that’s the attitude, then so be it,” Lance Gilliland said.