Why Jed Lives, Works and Plays in Lolo Creek

Jed whiteley clark fork coalition staff measuring flows in lolo creek II
August 18, 2015

As the Clark Fork Coalition’s project manager and monitoring coordinator, Jed Whiteley puts in place projects that restore streams like Lolo Creek in the Bitterroot Valley. As a homeowner nearby, he checks out what’s happening in the creek every day. And as an avid angler, hunter, and hiker, Jed takes a keen interest in the fish and wildlife that also call Lolo Creek home.

We caught up with Jed for a few minutes between his frequent forays into the field to talk more about this special stream.

How long have you lived near Lolo Creek?

I’ve lived up Sleeman Gulch in the Lolo watershed over three years. I enjoy the rural setting, and it gives me a personal connection to the habitat restoration projects I work on. I’m addicted to taking stock when I drive to work: where’s the water going today? What’s the bank look like?

What’s special about Lolo Creek?

Jed installs a telemetry station to monitor real-time flows on Tin Cup Creek in the Bitterroot Watershed
Jed installs a telemetry station to monitor real-time flows on Tin Cup Creek in the Bitterroot Watershed.

Well, it’s the biggest single tributary to the river after the east and west fork of the Bitterroot come together. Lolo is fed by lots of high-elevation, north-facing streams, which provide prime cold water habitat for resident bull trout. Those headwaters hold pure-strain westslope cutthroat trout, too.

And what about the lower stretches of the stream?

Unfortunately, it’s not in great shape. The creek tends to dry up this time of year due to all of the ditches and wells that siphon water out for crops, livestock, and lawns. Plus, Highway 12 cuts the creek off from the floodplain, and the riparian corridor isn’t as healthy as it could be. Lolo Creek has huge potential as a fishery, but we have a lot of steps to take to bring it fully back to life.

From your perspective, what’s the biggest threat to Lolo Creek?

Dewatering. Right now, it’s disconnected from the Bitterroot. That’s pretty shocking, considering it should be adding a lot of water into the river. When I measure flows at Fort Fizzle, Lolo Creek is running at 32 cfs. But a few miles downstream at the Highway 93 bridge, it’s only flowing at 4 cfs.

Jed stands in the bone-dry bed of Lolo Creek last fall.
Jed stands in the bone-dry bed of Lolo Creek last fall.

Why is the stream dry?

Mostly, it’s due to irrigation diversions, but some of it is caused by groundwater pumping from wells. The Coalition is working with the Lolo Watershed Group on a hydrologic study that will help us understand the interaction between groundwater and streamflows in the area. Meanwhile, the low flows cause warm water and poor fish habitat, as you might imagine.

How are you helping solve this problem?

The Coalition is working collaboratively with irrigators to lease or purchase water rights for instream flow. In addition, we’re talking to the biggest waters users about voluntary reductions, and other creative solutions for saving water. The Coalition currently manages two instream flow agreements that help add water. But it’s not enough to keep the creek connected to the river during major drought years like this one.

Any other cool projects underway in Lolo Creek?

Lolo low flows 2013 - staff gauge for clark fork coalition
The Coalition uses staff gauges like this to monitor flows in the basin.

For sure. We’re working in partnership with the Lolo National Forest and Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited to remove sediment sources and fish barriers in the headwaters. The Rocky Mountain Research Station and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have shown that the pure-strain westslope cutthroat trout population there are actually inbred—reconnecting these streams will resolve some of those mutations and protect native trout.

The Coalition is also teaming up with the Lolo Watershed Group to revegetate three miles of the creek where the 2013 wildfire burned so hot that it actually boiled the roots of trees! We’re identifying where the creek needs help, which landowners are interested in participating, and how best to replant the burned areas with the help of volunteers.

What’s one thing people in the watershed could do to help Lolo Creek?

Conserve water! More water in the stream during the summer and fall would make all the difference for the health of the stream, and the fish and wildlife that depend on it.

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