May 12, 2006

Water may or may not run through it

Ten years ago, when I moved from the flatland East to the mountains of Montana, I had to learn some new language. I asked my wife, a native Montanan, what people call those V-shaped indentations in a mountain a few blocks from our home. She patiently explained that they are gulches. I had heard other people refer to these as ravines and gullies, and I needed to know the proper term. "How do you differentiate these?" I stupidly inquired. "Gulches have water running through them," she replied.

That seemed like an okay answer until I realized that I had never seen any water running down these gulches. I also remembered visiting Helena's Last Chance Gulch, where there was absolutely no water in evidence. It's now a sort of toney business center in that town. "Oh, there used to be a creek running down it," was her answer. So now I learned that a gulch is a formation where there is now or used to be water running through it but I'm not sure how an outsider is supposed to know this stuff. There are lots of things called canyons in Montana too, most of which have creeks running down them, so I asked her to whatdifferentiated a gulch from a canyon. "Size," she replied. "Big ones are canyons. Little ones are gulches." My next obvious question was, "How big is big?" No answer. Montanans know these things I guess. Easterners do not. Then there are ravines, which appear to be smaller than canyons but fit the same description: water formed them but it's not necessary for the water to be there now. A gully's formation stems more from a downpour than a creek. What I can't figure out is how I'm supposed to know whether or not water formed these things orginally and whether it's still doing it.

Now, in today's local paper, The Missoulian (see here) I see a story about a lawsuit centering on the terms, slough and ditch. Here's what happened. Rivers tend to migrate here in Montana, changing their courses every once in a while. When this happens, a slough develops near where the rivers used to flow. A man who owns the property where a slough formed did some channel changing construction, stocked it with trout, and barred others from fishing in it (a serious problem in this fishing paradise state). It now fits the definition of a ditch. Here's what the newspaper said:

District Judge Ted Mizner, in a long awaited, closely watched decision, has ruled that the slough, which draws most  of its water from the Bitterroot River, is "no longer a natural water body." "Perhaps as early as 130 years ago, the Mitchell Slough may well have been considered a natural water body under the Stream Access Law," wrote Mizner..."However, it cannot be seriously disputed that through natural processes the Bitterroot River has migrated to the west and its bed is substantially lower than the bed of the Mitchell Slough."

The judge's decision was a triumph for property owners. So now what used to be a slough has been renamed a ditch. The judge's ruling created a storm of protest from both conservationists and fishermen. They believe the stream access laws allow the public to use that slough. Objections were made that it was the extensive construction done by the property owner that caused the channel to change so much that it's no longer a natural part of the river, refining it in the process as a ditch. The judge admitted this but still ruled that the water therein is no longer any part of the Bitterroot River.

Although the legal battle here is about whether a man's private construction "improvements" can turn a slough into a ditch, in the process turning a public water access into private property, there seem to be some lexical issues here as well. It's probably okay for me to be confused about the terms we use to describe nature's rearrangements of the landscape, such as gulches, ravines, canyons, and gullies, but I wonder about the right of humans to convert and therefore rename nature-made sloughs into man-made ditches. Maybe, like trademarks, this is another example of law's attempts to control our language.

Posted by Roger Shuy at May 12, 2006 01:47 PM