2020 Watershed Fund Project Support Recipients Announced
Congratulations to the recipients of Watershed Fund Project Support in 2020: The Big Hole Watershed Committee, Bitter Root Water Forum, Blackfoot Challenge, Clark Fork Coalition, Sun River Watershed Group, Swan Valley Connections, and Upper Musselshell Conservation District for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition. We are excited to support these groups in the great projects they have planned! Below, you’ll find the list of recipients and descriptions of the projects they’ll be working.
East Fork Divide Creek Natural Water Storage 2.0
This project will address the lack of natural water storage and late-season water availability in the uppermost privately owned section of the East Fork of Divide Creek, a tributary to the Big Hole River. The combination of overgrazing and a failed earthen dam has left the channel in an incised condition with a narrow floodplain corridor sparsely populated with willows. Because of the deeply incised channel, the creek cannot overtop its banks and expand soil water retention horizontally across the floodplain. This dysfunctional stream system does not allow for hydrologic connection between the stream and floodplain and has lost the ability to slow down and store cold water in the soil, especially important for dry summer months. The lack of hydrologic connectivity in the incised East Fork of Divide Creek negatively affects the entire riparian ecosystem. The BHWC has a priority interest in enhancing natural water storage on the landscape as a drought management and climate adaptation tool and is pioneering restoration techniques to that end. Enhancing storage and water availability also produces improvements in forage and rangeland health.
This project is an expansion and intensification of the BDA (beaver dam analog) project completed on the Morris Ranch property in 2019. That project installed 75 BDA structures along three reaches of the East Fork of Divide Creek. The next iteration of this project consists of adding another 55 beaver mimicry structures to the stream and also re-activating offsite water storage locations through mechanical channel manipulation. Structures will be constructed using available conifer material and sod mats on site. Mechanized equipment will be used in 8 strategic locations where a single BDA structure will be insufficient to achieve overbank flows during runoff. In these areas, we will pull back steep, downcut banks to activate overland flow onto the adjacent floodplain. Remnant ranching structures such as old earthen dams and berms will be used to fully maximize water storage retention. By mechanically manipulating the slope of the banks to encourage water to spread across its floodplain, and installing an additional 55 BDA’s to the stream, the wetland/riparian habitat and water storage capacity of the system will be greatly enhanced. The proposed beaver mimicry structures and bank work will treat approximately 6,400 feet of stream channel, impacting 16 acres of floodplain.
Project Maintenance by Watershed Enhancement Team
This project will occur along the following five streams with the following water quality issues, as described in Montana DEQ’s TMDL documentation:
- North Burnt Fork Creek: Nutrients, sediment
- Miller Creek: Alterations in streamside vegetative cover, temperature, sediment
- Rye Creek: Alterations in streamside vegetative cover, nutrients, sediment
- East Fork Bitterroot River: Alterations in streamside vegetative cover, temperature, sediment
- Cameron Creek: Not studied, but as a tributary to East Fork Bitterroot River, the same three attributes (alterations in streamside vegetative cover, temperature, sediment) are of concern
Aquatic life is impaired in each stream due to poor water quality, and primary contact recreation is impaired in North Burnt Fork and Rye Creeks. Lack of riparian cover also contributes to poor habitat for avian and terrestrial wildlife species as well as fish.
Revegetation and fencing improve water quality as follows:
- Sediment: Riparian plants slow erosion with sturdy root matrices
- Temperature: Riparian plants shade the stream and promote groundwater infiltration, delivering cool recharge water
- Nutrients: Fencing prevents livestock from excreting waste in the stream; nutrients often adsorb to sediment (see sediment)
- Alterations in streamside vegetative covers: Addressing this is the primary goal of the revegetation strategy
Because of this approach’s effectiveness in treating NPS pollutants, BRWF has implemented a number of revegetation and fencing projects on private lands across our watershed. In 2016, BRWF developed a volunteer team to maintain and monitor these projects: the Watershed Enhancement Team (WET). These volunteers ensure the longevity and success of vegetation-based projects. WET typically visits projects for three summers following implementation, though exact timelines and activities are adapted based on monitoring results. During 2020, five sites on private lands will require WET’s attention; this will be essential for our young plantings’ survival. Specific activities will likely include browse protector installation/maintenance, watering, fence maintenance, weeding, plant counts, and photopoint monitoring.
Building Drought Resilience through Soil Health
Drought conditions have impacted the Blackfoot watershed in 12 of the last 19 years, affecting native fish habitat, agricultural producers, and the outdoor recreation industry. Increasingly, Blackfoot residents can count on reduced snowpack, earlier and more rapid spring runoff, and low water conditions by late summer. Because of the State of Montana’s Murphy Right – an instream flow water right to protect native fish habitat – Blackfoot producers must reduce or cease their water use many summers during peak crop production times. With the pressures of this persistent drought, Blackfoot irrigators are looking for adaptation strategies that support irrigation efficiency and better soil moisture holding capacity to help sustain them in low water years. In partnership with Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other agencies, the Blackfoot Challenge has been exploring new approaches to land stewardship that can support long-term drought resilience.
Our goal is to facilitate long-term drought resilience with a project that bridges land and water stewardship. Through soil moisture monitoring and irrigation water management, we aim to help landowners better understand changing water supply conditions and adapt their practices to take advantage of peak spring stream flows, while remaining viable during low flows. Research has shown that soil moisture monitoring can improve water conservation practices – which will also help landowners comply with the Blackfoot Drought Plan. By pairing monitoring with training and irrigation scheduling services, we can help producers refine irrigation practices to ensure crop root zones are fully watered early, storing moisture for later when irrigation water use is restricted due to drought. This strategy will help irrigators better understand water use, crop needs and soil health, guiding future irrigation infrastructure and land stewardship decisions. After a 2019 pilot project, there has been tremendous interest from other landowners interested in soil moisture monitoring and irrigation technical services. We aim to expand this program to another 3 ranches in 2020. In doing so, we also want to build a data set to inform land managers about soil health conditions and ways to improve soil moisture holding capacity.
Maclay Ditch Fish Screen
Lolo Creek is the third-largest tributary to the Bitterroot River, and its upper reaches are strongholds for native bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout. This watershed also recruits brown trout, rainbow trout, and mountain whitefish to the Bitterroot River fishery. Lolo Creek faces multiple, interrelated challenges, including dewatering and high water temperatures in its lower reaches, sedimentation, and barriers to fish passage. But one of the biggest challenges, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ fish biologist for this creek, is entrainment of ten to twenty thousand fish each year in Lolo Ditch, the largest irrigation diversion on this stream. This one, 4-mile long ditch can divert more than 75% of the creek during (now common) low flow periods, leading fish to follow the flow away from the main channel. But when the headgates close, those fish remain trapped – left vulnerable to predation and eventual certain death in rapidly-shrinking pools. FWP organizes annual fish rescues, but even these efforts save only a tiny fraction of the thousands of trout and whitefish captured by the ditch each fall. This loss, year after year, has a devastating impact on the Lolo Creek fishery.
This project will completely eliminate the greatest negative impact to wild fish populations in this watershed: severe entrainment in the Lolo Ditch diversion. Because every Lolo Creek tributary but one lies upstream of this diversion, fish must run the diversions gauntlet when they migrate, resulting in what FWP estimates is a loss of up to 99% of out-migrating salmonids each year. The project addresses the issue through construction of a Corrugated Water Screen at the diversion site – an innovative design favored for its lack of moving parts, ease of maintenance, and low cost compared to other fish screen designs. (Maintenance concerns were among the reasons irrigators had rejected screening this ditch in the past.) The project is already well underway, including outreach to private landowners and water-users on the ditch, completion of field surveys and engineering, evaluation of design alternatives, selection (with landowner input) of a fish screen design, and completion of ~80% of the fundraising needed to implement this project (slated for 2020). The project will completely end entrainment at this diversion and greatly improve fish populations on Lolo Creek, its tributaries, and the Bitterroot River by retaining thousands of wild fish that are now lost annually.
Crossing Replacement and Habitat Improvement
This project will address water quality in lower Muddy Creek. This stretch is identified in our 2013 Watershed Restoration Plan as a key source of sediment and phosphorus dues to extensive erosion occurring in this reach. It is also a source of thermal impairment. Erosion, over grazing, and vegetation loss are cited in the WRP and TMDL (2004) as causes of these issues.
SRWG will replace a crossing that is undersized with one that can appropriately convey Muddy Creek high flows. This will reduce erosion on banks caused by over topping and velocity on banks, and reduce sediment inputs from annual wear and tear and maintenance on the structure. The landowner agreed to fence cattle off the riparian areas to allow vegetation to establish, and SRWG volunteers will supplement this by planting willow stakes. SRWG will also remove or re-place large rock immediately downstream from the crossing that forms eddies and creates more erosion. All these efforts will reduce erosion and increase vegetation to combat the concerns mentioned above. This project will also be used as a demonstration to engage other landowners in the conversation about grazing management and streamside buffers and to encourage similar projects and stream stewardship. This outreach and education should broaden the positive effect of the project.
Elk Creek Conservation Area Restoration Project
The Elk Creek Conservation Area (ECCA) lies in the heart of the Swan River Watershed. The ECCA is a section of land that Swan Valley Connections owns and manages in partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). All 640 acres are permanently protected under conservation easement, and the property contains roughly 2.5 miles of Elk Creek, including its confluence with the Swan River. Due to its extensive coldwater upwellings, Elk Creek provides more spawning, rearing, staging, and migration habitat for bull trout than any other stream in the Swan River Watershed, and this reach and its floodplain is vital corridor for countless wildlife species. Unfortunately, prior to the formation of the ECCA, Plum Creek Timber Company heavily logged the Elk Creek riparian zone, which diminished habitat connectivity and function. Non-native, invasive plants have invaded and established in the floodplain, and heavy snow-loading and ungulate browse have thwarted the progress of a 2015 restoration project that aimed to restore diverse native plants. If conservation funding and proactive stewardship are not directed to this landscape, its ecological values will continue to degrade.
This project will provide education and stewardship opportunities that enhance native biodiversity. We will pursue the most immediate, achievable, and obvious of the ECCA’s conservation priorities, and our likely success will catalyze further capacity for long-term habitat restoration and stewardship. The following three strategies will drive our work, and each will include volunteers and/or students:
- Fence Management: We will replace fencing installed in 2015 that has been damaged by snow-loading and ungulates. We will also expand fencing to new areas as needed. This will promote continued native plant establishment. Some new plants may be added from locally-sourced cuttings.
- Invasive Plant Management: We will remove spotted knapweed, orange hawkweed, houndstongue, and oxeye daisy in the ECCA with a species-appropriate, integrated management strategy involving biocontrols, manual pulling/cutting, solarization, and/or herbicide.
- Macroinvertebrate Monitoring: We will build our Macroinvertebrate Monitoring Program to gauge water quality and grow respect for watershed health.
Two Dot Bank Restoration
The Two Dot Bank Restoration project will address resource issues due to bank erosion and possible channel avulsion. Bank erosion leads to sedimentation and affects water quality and aquatic habitat. This bank is a concern for its potential to create a new avulsion if it should erode further. The Musselshell has suffered over 35 avulsions since 2011. Avulsions lead to increased speed of the river and increased sediment deposits, which in turn exacerbate conditions downstream as the faster river continues to erode banks and cut new avulsions.
The Two Dot Bank Restoration Project will utilize a toe rock with fabric lifts and planting bench technique. As an alternative to full bank rock, these biodegradable fabric lifts, also commonly called “vegetated soil lifts” or “willow lifts”, are commonly used to provide upper bank structure that supports the growth of woody vegetation. The intent of the lifts is to provide bank structure, contribute soil material for growth, and hold moisture to allow the establishment of woody vegetation that eventually takes over the bank stabilization role as the fabric decays, typically over about five years. Soil lifts that incorporate a low planting bench behind have been successfully used at Roundup and near Lavina. The project will provide soft bank protection to limit sediment issues that are affecting Musselshell River water quality. This project will stabilize the bank, supporting the growth of woody vegetation, which will diminish sedimentation and provide wildlife and aquatic habitat. Vegetation will also help to shade the river and decrease temperatures. The project will also decrease the potential for the river to form a new avulsion in this location and, therefore, the project is helping to prevent further sedimentation issues in the Musselshell River.