The Bitterroot River sustains diverse fisheries, supplies food, shelter, and critical movement corridors to an abundance of wildlife, and provides a wealth of cultural, economic, and recreation resources. But logging, road-building, and extensive irrigation left deep scars, and rapid urbanization and climate change are posing new threats. We’re working to address these issues by restoring instream flow, reducing sediment, and improving aquatic and riparian habitat.
Through the strategies in its Bringing Back the Bitterroot Campaign, CFC is working to add water to thirsty creeks, reduce sediment impacts, and remove barriers to fish passage. 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 are working with local watershed groups, land managers and irrigation districts on innovative ways to conserve water, improve stream health and function, and restore key headwaters. Results: Our restoration projects to date have returned more than 30 cfs of instream flow, are keeping hundreds of tons of sediment from reaching spawning streams, removed major fish passage barriers, and improved dozens of miles of riparian and aquatic habitat.
Restoring Lolo Creek and its fishery: In 2020 CFC completed installation of a fish screen on Lolo Ditch, which, before this project, had trapped 10,000 fish each year, greatly impacting native and wild fish populations. We’ve also partnered with the Lolo National Forest since 2014 on multiple large-scale road decommissioning and sediment-reduction projects in the 45,000-acre headwaters area of Lolo Creek to improve water quality and restore spawning habitat for native trout. CFC currently manages 3 water right leases on the creek that deliver vital instream flow during dry months of the year, and has completed multiple stream restoration projects with local students, Lolo Watershed Group, and other partners. Learn more.
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.
O’Brien Creek: CFC owns and leases the senior water rights 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. CFC is now working on multiple projects to improve aquatic and riparian habitat along the creek. Watch this brief video to learn more.
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; Bitter Root Water Forum; Lolo Watershed Group; Trout Unlimited; MPG Ranch; Ward Irrigation District; Tin Cup County Water & Sewer District; Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; Bitterroot National Forest; Lolo National Forest; and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.