Cattle and clean water at Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch
Welcome to a living classroom for the largest river repair job in the West. The Coalition and its partners purchased Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in 2005 as a learning site located in the heart of the largest Superfund complex in the nation.
As part-owner and the managing partner of DCCR, a 2,300-acre working cattle ranch in Montana’s Deer Lodge Valley, our goal is to showcase the challenges and opportunities involved in cleaning up and restoring the Upper Clark Fork River watershed. We produce beef for sale and crops that feed our cattle, while also putting in place conservation projects that improve the range, the river, and our bottom line.
Removing toxic mine waste from the floodplain
In 1908, a historic flood sent mine tailings downstream from the copper mines in Butte. This combined with subsequent flood events left toxic pollution littered along the agricultural floodplains in the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. The contaminated areas left behind–nicknamed “slickens” by the local ranchers–are devoid of plants, unproductive as agricultural lands, and harmful to fish when they erode into the river.
A century later, the Upper Clark Fork River Superfund cleanup is finally removing toxic sediments from 45 miles of the floodplain. This cleanup is unprecedented in scope or scale. Over $100 million will be spent repairing the river, removing mining waste, and restoring tributary streams.
The project takes place primarily on private ranches, which is why the Coalition bought DCCR. We volunteered to be first in line for the cleanup to share with our neighbors the challenges and opportunities in store for a working cattle ranch. The goal is to ensure the best cleanup possible for the river, and to encourage our neighbors to do the same on their property.
We worked closely with scientists, nearby ranchers, and state agencies to devise a cleanup plan that minimizes disturbance to our agricultural activities while maximizing the benefit to the river. Cleanup on DCCR started in 2014 and finished up in 2016. Now the post-construction healing begins. We learned a lot in the process, and we’ve shared our views of the good and not-so-good with our neighbors and with DEQ so they can make changes in how they do things down the road. But ultimately we are thankful that 4.3 river miles and 125 acres of the ranch are now free of metal-laden mine wastes.
Restoring flow and function to Upper Clark Fork creeks
We are partnering with a wide range of groups to ensure the cleanup of the mainstem river is accompanied by habitat restoration projects on tributary streams. In particular, we work closely with the Watershed Restoration Coalition, a landowner-led group based in the Deer Lodge Valley, on conservation projects that restore riparian corridors, remove barriers to fish passage, reconnect streams to the river, and re-water sections where flows are too low to support fish.
The Upper Clark Fork is a very thirsty river: Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks categorizes 87 miles of the river as dewatered. Dry years create havoc for agricultural operators, as well as fish and wildlife.
Water conservation projects proactively address the problems created by low flows. At DCCR, we’re modeling several types of irrigation efficiency and water leasing projects that keep water in the creeks and rivers when fish need it most, and improve water delivery to crops and livestock, too.
More about our ranch
The ranch lies east of Interstate 90 along three miles of the Clark Fork River. Dry Cottonwood Creek flows through the property, which supports 140 head of cattle, and includes a grazing lease on adjacent U.S. Forest Service land. The ranch holds a number of senior water rights from surrounding waterways, used to irrigate 200 acres of crops, including alfalfa, wild hay, and oats.
Over the last decade, the Coalition and our partners have put in place dozens of conservation practices on DCCR that improve habitat, water quality, and the ranch’s bottom line, including projects that:
- enhance irrigation efficiency
- improve range and riparian health
- double our grass-fed beef sales
- reduce energy cost and water use
- model “ridgetop to riverbank” stewardship practices
Contact Andy Fisher to learn about water conservation projects.
Contact Will McDowell to learn about stream restoration opportunities on ranchlands.
Learn about our “Eight Gr8 Trout Streams” campaign.