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Bozeman couple continues battle with city over water rights

Mark Twain once said, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’
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Posted at 5:23 PM, Oct 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-20 14:07:11-04

BOZEMAN — Mark Twain once said, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’ He may have been on to something because that’s exactly what’s been going on at Lance and Siri Gilliland’s property in Bozeman. They have been fighting a battle for six years over a creek running through their property.

“As the city continues to grow, the more you can protect habitat and places that are wild and pristine, are worth the fight,” said Siri Gilliland. “We’re just committed to the fight.”

The Gilliland’s property is home to Lyman Creek, which city officials say supplies Bozeman with 20% of its water.

The Gilliland's have been fighting a losing battle over the city’s usage

“We’ve been fighting in district court and one of our cases went to the supreme court,” said Lance Gilliland. “We lost on a technicality.”

While most of the water flows on their property, the Gilliland's only have junior water rights to the city’s senior water rights.

Bozeman water court judge, Russ McElyea says like many western states, water users in Montana who first used the water as a source have priority of use over other water users who use the water at a later date.

“It’s called the first in time, first in right rule,” said McElyea.

McElyea says the court hears about 1,000 disputes a month.

“Easily 6 to 10,000 a year,” said McElyea. “These disputes get very intense, very expensive, and they can create rivalries that last generations.”

So far, the Gilliland's say they have spent about 6,000 dollars trying to settle this fight.

The city has had water rights to Lyman Creek for over 100 years. In fact, it was the city's first water right.

City Officials were not willing to be interviewed for this story, but they did say Lyman Creek is “important for many reasons, including providing high-quality water that requires minimal treatment. Also having a water source on the north side of town separate Sourdough and Hyalite is critical for resiliency of the community’s water supply.”

The Gilliland’s say they understand the city has rights to the water, but they’re afraid Lyman Creek will dry up and adversely affect wildlife, including bears, moose, elk, owls, deer, and trout.

“In a week or two there will be dozens of brown trout making their way upstream,” said Lance Gilliland.

Lyman Creek is a brown and rainbow trout spawning habitat that helps to supply fish farther downstream into Bridger Creek.

“So, the fish here really support the entire ecosystem of the Gallatin River valley,” said lance Gilliland

This is why Pat Byorth with Trout Unlimited decided to get involved

“This is a very important tributary,” said Byorth. “We rely on wild trout in Montana, natural reproduction. we don’t stock fish, we let nature run its course and we protect habitat.”

He says if the city continues to take more and more water from the creek, the trout will die.

In another statement, city officials told us that they have “invested substantial time and effort in pursuit of a compromise and remain open to further discussion.”


“They haven’t offered a compromise that would keep enough water in the creek to preserve it,” said Lance Gilliland.

Now, the Gilliland's are resorting to a public awareness campaign, hoping to put more pressure on the city.

“It’s worth fighting for and standing up for even though it’s uncomfortable and nerve-racking,” said Siri Gilliland.

Lance Gilliland says he hopes people in Bozeman agree.

“We just hope we can find a way to get to a reasonable conclusion soon,” said Lance Gilliland.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of Gilliland's public awareness campaign, an ad is currently running on KBZK.