Fed by miles of creeks and streams tumbling from wilderness peaks, the Bitterroot River is a draw for thousands of anglers, sustains prime fish and wildlife habitat, and supports thousands of acres of agriculture and a dozen communities. Drought and over-allocation of water supplies have taken a toll on one of our state’s most popular rivers, but exciting work is underway to keep the Bitterroot cool, clear and flowing.
The Coalition focuses on adding water to thirsty creeks, reducing sediment impacts, restoring riparian vegetation, adding shade and improving fish habitat. Dozens of creeks have perilously low flows by late summer, and 38 streams in the watershed are listed as “impaired” due to sediment and high water temperatures. We work with local watershed groups, land managers and irrigation districts to leverage resources and find innovative ways to conserve water and restore key headwaters. To view our updated Bitterroot Watershed Strategy click here. Results: Our restoration projects in the Bitterroot will return nearly 30 cubic feet of water per second to the system, remove 46 fish passage barriers, and improve 70 miles of road over the next few years.
Remaking history on Lost Horse Creek: In 2012, CFC initiated a large-scale water conservation project with the Ward Irrigation District on Lost Horse Creek in the upper Bitterroot drainage near Hamilton. The creek used to run dry in its last half-mile. The project removed a seasonal earthen dam used by the district to convey water from its irrigation canal along the Bitterroot River. Instead, the water is now transported to ditch users via a pipe placed beneath the creek. This reunites the creek with the Bitterroot River, allowing bull trout and western cutthroat trout to migrate up the creek. As part of the agreement, the district will be leaving up to 10 cfs (nearly 4,500 gallons per minute) in Lost Horse Creek, which improves flows as well as water temperature and quality. Learn more.
Navigating tough times on Lolo Creek: CFC currently manages and monitors 3 water right leases on the creek that deliver 4.37 cfs during the summer and fall. We’re also partnering with the Lolo National Forest on a large 10-year logging road decommissioning and sediment-reduction project in the 45,000-acre headwaters area of Lolo Creek to improve water quality and restore spawning habitat for native trout. CFC recently worked with the Lolo Watershed Group to mitigate increased sediment due to the 2013 Lolo Fire by planting over 1,000 cuttings and saplings along the affected stream banks. Since this creek often dries up during irrigation season, we continue to look for collaborative, creative solutions to help irrigators save water. Learn more.
O’Brien Creek: CFC leases the senior water right on O’Brien Creek and protects it instream to benefit the fishery. The O’Brien watershed encompasses an area of approximately 25 square miles (16,200 acres) and is located about 4 miles west of Missoula, near Blue Mountain. Although the majority of the watershed is owned by the U.S. National Forest, the lower 3 miles of the creek are surrounded by private land. O’Brien Creek is an important stream for native westslope cutthroat trout spawning and rearing, and is also designated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as Proposed Critical Bull Trout Habitat. The bull trout is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Tin Cup Creek & Reservoir: In 2010, CFC brokered a unique project to restore the former capacity of the Tin Cup Reservoir, resulting in a huge win-win for agriculture and for fish in Tin Cup Creek, a chronically dewatered tributary to the Bitterroot River. The project also installed satellite-controlled flow gates, and added 400 acre-feet of water per year, or 3 cfs, to the creek during months when it used to nearly dry up. The Coalition also leases a senior water right on the lower creek that adds 4.32 cfs of flow to the creek and complements the reservoir project to boost streamflows.
Local landowners; Bitterroot Water Forum; Lolo Watershed Group; Lolo National Forest; Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Trout Unlimited; Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; Bitterroot National Forest; Ward Irrigation District; Tin Cup County Water & Sewer District.