Low flows affect every part of the Clark Fork watershed, mainstem rivers, and their tributaries. Throughout the summer we will highlight conditions on various creeks, showing what the impacts are and describing what we are doing to help.
The current spotlight is on O’Brien Creek, which is the last tributary to the Bitterroot River before its confluence with the Clark Fork. The stream supports healthy populations of westslope cutthroat and is classified as critical habitat for bull trout. Over the last century the creek was altered by logging, road-building, grazing, and dewatering–leading to erosion, loss of vegetation, and degraded habitat.
The lower reaches used to run dry on a yearly basis, preventing fish from accessing its cooler upstream waters. CFC began leasing instream water in 2004, allowing the creek to stay connected to the mainstem year-round, and ensuring native fish are able to use the creek for refuge and spawning
- Monitor real-time stream flow and check on latest drought conditions
- Stay up-to-date on current fishing restrictions
- Learn what you can do, and see what we’re doing to help our creeks
Want to help? By becoming a member you will help restore flow, monitor the vital signs of key streams, and improve conditions across the watershed. We can’t do it without you – thanks for your support!
Diminishing Returns of Dwindling Streamflows
From supplying taps in town to irrigating crops in fields, our rivers and streams work overtime to deliver water that fuels our communities and economy. Unfortunately, our streams can’t keep up.
During Montana’s dry summer and fall months, the demand for water exceeds the amount available in our waterways. Fish aren’t the only ones gasping when water levels drop. Low flows affect everyone whose livelihood depends on Montana’s iconic waterway. That’s why we design projects that keep fish wet and streams flowing.
What’s the big deal?
In the Clark Fork basin, over 900 miles of streams are listed as “chronically or periodically dewatered” by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. This means that, most years, there’s not enough water in certain reaches to support fish. Less water also means hotter water, which increases algae blooms and lowers dissolved oxygen—a lethal combination for our native trout.
Drought certainly plays a role. So do irrigation withdrawals. Even residential use can lower streamflows, especially when hundreds of wells concentrated in one area can slurp up groundwater before it replenishes streams.
How we keep streams flowing
We partner with private landowners, irrigation districts and water user groups to design projects that keep water in chronically dewatered reaches. Our incentive-based projects improve fisheries as well as working lands.
Using a host of data, the Coalition and our partners identify high-priority tributaries across the Clark Fork watershed where investing in streamflow restoration will deliver the biggest gains.
We manage more than 35 contracts that restore 30 billion gallons of water to streams in the Upper Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Middle Clark Fork—enough water to fill 45,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools!
Water leases are a win-win
Our instream flow agreements compensate landowners for conserving or reducing water use, and leaving it in the river when fish need it most. These agreements are uniquely tailored to meet the site-specific needs of each waterway and each water user.
Montana water law allows water-right holders to change all or a portion of a water right from consumptive use (like crop irrigation) to instream use. It also allows people to temporarily or permanently lease water rights to organizations like the Clark Fork Coalition.
Water leases maintain a right’s seniority and ownership, while giving landowners the flexibility to manage their property in ways that benefit the environment and their bottom line.
Do more with less
For example, we provide technical assistance for irrigators looking to pipe or line ditches, upgrade water diversions, or convert from flood to sprinkler irrigation systems.
The Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program invests mitigation funds from the Bonneville Power Administration in flow restoration projects throughout western Montana as part of its effort to improve flows in areas where fish are impacted by BPA’s hydro-power dams.
In the Upper Clark Fork, we work closely with Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program to restore flows in the Superfund site complex where legacy mining contamination has injured fish and wildlife resources.
Interested in a water lease or conservation project? Contact Andy Fisher at 406-542-0539, ext. 211.