On the Musselshell, working together pays big dividends

Flood

Musselshell Watershed Coalition, photo by Chris Boyer, Kestrel Aerial

In 2011, floodwaters on the Musselshell River, as here near Mosby, breached the riverbank in numerous locations.

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gathers public comment this week on a huge study of the Yellowstone River, this is a good time to be reminded of the impressive progress that has been made in cooperatively managing another Montana river.

That would be the Musselshell, which rises near Martinsdale and flows about 350 miles before joining the Missouri River north of Mosby. Like so many other high plains rivers, the Musselshell seems perpetually to have been either rampaging in times of flood or barely trickling along in times of drought.

And for most of the time since the first notice of stock watering rights was filed—in 1869 on Elk Creek in the Upper Musselshell—users all over the water basin were locked in bitter feuds over who got how much water and when.

But starting in the mid-1990s, a remarkable thing happened. Two water user association boards, which had been fighting for more than 50 years over obtaining enough water to fill their reservoirs, finally decided to work together.

Hearings set on Yellowstone study

A comprehensive study of the Yellowstone River, more than 10 years in the making, will be the subject of a public meeting Wednesday night in Huntley.

A similar meeting was held Tuesday in Big Timber and a third and final meeting is set for Glendive on Thursday.

The Yellowstone River Cumulative Effects Analysis was jointly sponsored by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it also involved numerous federal, state and local agencies, private businesses and nonprofit groups.

The aim of the study was to produce a thorough examination of how human activities have changed the 670-mile-long Yellowstone River, and to recommend voluntary management practices to keep the river healthy.

Karin Boyd, a geomorphologist in Bozeman and a member of the study group’s technical advisory committee, said presenters will try to keep their summary of the report short so there is plenty of time to take comments from and have a good discussion with members of the public.

A press release from the Corps of Engineers said the study looks at the cumulative hydrologic, biological and socioeconomic impacts of human activity on the river “in order to provide a scientific basis for developing recommended management practices.”

The meeting in Huntley will begin at 7 p.m. in the community room of Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, 150 Cooperative Way, on the south side of I-94 at the Huntley exit.

The meeting in Glendive also starts at 7, in the community Room of Glendive Alliance Church, 105 Highland Park Road, a quarter mile north of the interstate where it meets Highway 16.

The draft report is available for viewing by going here.

Over the years and for many different reasons, that initial cooperation blossomed and spread up and down the length of the Musselshell, on projects ranging from dam repairs and salinity monitoring to weed control and bank stabilization.

So much had been learned about the river as a complete system, and so many state and federal agencies had grown familiar with water users and water projects on the Musselshell, that when the devastating floods of 2011 hammered the basin, the response was rapid and comprehensive. In a way, the flood response confirmed the usefulness of all the cooperation that had already taken place, and paved the way for still more.

“It’s a model for how much you can achieve when you pull that off, when you get everyone together,” said Karin Boyd, the owner of Applied Geomorphology in Bozeman. She is also a member of the technical advisory committee of the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, which led the study that is being discussed in the Corps of Engineers meetings this week.

She was also part of the River Assessment Triage Team that was mobilized after the 2011 floods to meet with ranchers and farmers all along the Musselshell, helping them assess damages and plan repairs to machinery and irrigation infrastructure and to the river itself.

Bill Milton, a Roundup rancher who has been a facilitator for many of the efforts, said the key to getting things done on the Musselshell was the realization that acting cooperatively was much more effective than having individuals pursuing individual benefits.

“People started thinking more strategically,” he said. “When we do request money, how do we leverage that money to get the best bang for the buck in the entire basin?”

That seminal act of cooperation in the mid-1990s involved the water user association boards for the Deadman’s Basin water storage project and the Upper Musselshell Project, which relies on the Martinsdale and Bair reservoirs. Deadman’s Basin filed for a water right first, in 1934, but the Upper Musselshell Project was ready to store water first, in 1939, two years before Deadman’s Basin was ready.

And so they fought for decades over who should get water first, and how much they were allowed to take from the river. For 50 years, directors of the two groups wouldn’t even talk to each other. But in 1995 the two groups finally got together and formalized an agreement designed to help both organizations obtain all the water they needed.

In a history of Musselshell Basin water usage, written for the Musselshell Water Coalition in 2013, Wendy J. Ross Beye said the success of the agreement “is dependent on cordial and cooperative communication between the water managers for the two projects, and it is working well.”

In 2009, when a dam rehabilitation project at Deadman’s Basin resulted in lower water levels over the winter, the Upper Musselshell association stored excess water and then released it to help fill Deadman’s reservoir when the project was finished. That kind of cooperation would have been unthinkable before 1995.

Another milestone had been recorded a decade earlier, in 1984, when the Deadman’s water users association began requiring all irrigators to install water-measuring devices, yielding accurate figures on water usage for the first time.

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That put Deadman’s Basin irrigators way ahead of the curve when, in 2001, the Montana Water Court required all decreed water users on the Musselshell to install measuring devices. That happened when the Musselshell Basin became one of the first river systems to be adjudicated under the Montana Water Use Act of 1973. A “temporary preliminary decree” was issued for the Musselshell because it was officially labeled as being “chronically de-watered.”

The river was divided into six zones, each under the jurisdiction of a water commissioner who monitored use and enforced water rights. The project got off to a rocky start, with some ranchers resisting the idea of installing measuring devices or allowing water commissioners to come on their land.

Beye said the project ultimately was successful because the water commissioners were people familiar with the river and with the people whose livelihoods depended on it.

“A water commissioner who was courteous and took time to have a cup of a coffee with a rancher had much better success than one who appeared officious and aloof, or worse, left gates open,” she wrote in her water history.

Still another milestone was reached in 1995, the same year the two water associations began working together. In that year, dozens of groups joined forces to see what they could do about improving water quality in Careless Creek, a major tributary of the Musselshell that was depositing tons of silt and salt into the river each year.

Bridge

Wendy Beye

Floodwaters twisted this railroad bridge near Roundup in 2011.

The partners included state and federal agencies, water users associations, two county commissions, conservation districts, a cabin-owners association, local schools and the Montana Conservation Corps. Their accomplishments—including 52,000 feet of streambank restoration and improvements to 18,000 acres of rangeland—were so notable that the project won state and national watershed awards.

“Perhaps the most important benefit, however, was the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that developed among the project’s partners,” Beye wrote. The spirit of cooperation ultimately led to the formation of the Musselshell Watershed Coalition in 2009.

Thanks to accurate monitoring and the work of the water commissioners, and to the growing cooperation among landowners, water users and agencies up and down the river, things were going smoothly until 2011. Then the big floods hit.

As Beye explained, the Musselshell is a classic prairie river, and “flooding and drought are built into this system.” In her water history, she touched on some of the major floods and historic droughts. In 1908, the Roundup Record reported that heavy rains caused the river to rise more than 10 feet in less than a week. A bridge on the recently completed Milwaukee Road railroad washed out near the town of Musselshell.

An extended drought between 1928 and 1937 finally ended with the flash flooding of June 1937, which washed out more than 20 county bridges and damaged or destroyed some 40 houses near Klein. There were big floods again in 1948 and 1967—the latter heralding another long period of drought—and more in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

There had been no bigger floods than the one in 1967, but it was eclipsed by the flood of 2011. In the spring of that year, mountains already flush with snowpack were hit with monsoon-like rains, in some locations up to 9 inches in a week, or 400 percent of the average rainfall for the entire season.

When the first wave of floodwater roared downstream, the Musselshell was flowing at 15,000 cubic feet per second at Roundup, almost double the volume seen in 1967. The river crested at 14.69 feet, more than 2 feet higher than in 1967. More than 50 houses were destroyed, roads and highways disappeared under water, livestock drowned and the abandoned Milwaukee Road grade, which had served as a dike in previous floods, suffered numerous breaches.

Salt cedar

Wendy Beye

A church group from Omaha, Neb., that volunteered to help Roundup in the aftermath of flooding in 2011 was put to work pulling salt cedar, a plant that adds salt to the river and crowds out native species like willows and cottonwoods.

A second flood crest caused more damage and floodwaters stood in fields and ditches for a month and a half, killing vegetation. The flooding also radically changed the river, most dramatically by trimming its length by 35 miles due to cut-offs. And a shorter river meant a steeper gradient and increased water velocity, leading to greater bank erosion and higher silt load.

But the unprecedented disaster also served to demonstrate the benefits of the cooperative efforts that had been building for 20 years. For one thing, streamflow gages operated by the U.S. Geological Survey were used to track the rush of floodwaters down the river system. And at Deadman’s Basin, the water manager was monitoring gages and transmitting real-time data to disaster and emergency service agencies. She was also calling sheriffs’ departments and downstream ranchers, telling them what to expect.

“The notification, short as it was, no doubt saved lives,” Beye wrote.

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition also swung into action, immediately calling on state and federal agencies to help ranchers and water associations deal with flood damage. The agencies were already familiar with the river and the water users, and the water users knew the people who came out to help.

The coalition obtained grants to form the River Assessment Triage Team that Karin Boyd served on. The RAT Team, as it was known, walked the river to catalog the damage and to meet with ranchers and local officials to talk about what was needed to recover from the flood and to plan for the future.

After identifying numerous projects and making recommendations for improvements at more than 40 sites, the RAT Team also produced a series of best management practices for the basin, again in consultation with landowners and water users.

“I think it could be a model for the Yellowstone,” Boyd said. “What we did is, we traveled around the basin and had meetings. People were invited to suggest what they thought could be done.”

Beye said ranchers and conservationists, cities and counties, and state and federal agencies all worked together, to an extent that was almost hard to believe.

“Everybody comes to our meetings,” Beye said. “It’s really amazing. Even when they’re not on the agenda. They just like to see what we’re up to. They’re always amazed at what we’re up to.”

The watershed coalition, which had always been run entirely by volunteers, took a big step early in 2014, when it made its first hire. Laura Nowlin, who had been back on the Winnett-area family ranch for about a year with her husband and two children when the job came up, said she puts in about 15 hours a week as coalition coordinator.

Trees

Wendy Beye

Many mature cottonwood trees were lost in the flood of 2011, but millions of cottonwood seeds took root on gravel bars and in silt deposits. In this photo from later in the summer of 2011, seven miles west of Roundup, cottonwood regeneration was already well underway.

The work is still done largely by volunteers, who have put in about 700 hours so far in 2015. Nowlin said the coalition’s main job is to do the work that landowners and water users are too preoccupied to do.

“We’re all busy with what’s going on every day,” she said, “and it’s hard to think about the longer-term things the coalition is thinking about.”

Those things include a major salinity monitoring program, floodplain management, weed eradication and preparation of a Musselshell Watershed Plan, which was recently completed. As part of that plan, the coalition has identified a long list of projects, some of which are underway and others that stretch out five years or more into the future.

Those include repairs to the Deadman’s Basin diversion dam and headgate, a project that will include a fish passage. Other projects involve improvements to dams, culverts and canals, fish reintroduction, bank stabilization and reservoir upgrades.

Michael Downey, the water planning section supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said rebuilding the Deadman’s Basin dam to include a fish passage was a “huge” accomplishment, something that would not have happened without all the groundwork laid in recent years.

At all those meetings over all those years, he said, “people got a good idea of how the river works. It used to dry up every year. Now they realize they need to do everything they can to keep it flowing.”

“Really, what took place in the Musselshell was that willingness of people to get together,” Downey said. “I wish I knew the exact formula for making that happen.”

Just last month, the power of cooperation was shown again, when a meeting was convened in Helena to talk about one of the key projects identified by the Musselshell Watershed Coalition.

Known as the Roundup Reach project, it involves creation of a fish passage on the Pedrazzi Newton Dam, road culvert replacements, bank stabilization near Roundup and mitigation of some stretches of railroad berm. “The state was really interested in helping us find funding,” Beye said, and the meeting in Helena was attended by representatives of numerous state agencies.

“That was kind of earth-shaking to have them all in one room talking about one project,” she said.

Milton, the Roundup rancher and facilitator for the watershed coalition, thinks the ground-up process that has achieved so much on the Musselshell can be a model for more than just other projects and rivers in Montana.

“This whole idea of communities taking ownership of their landscapes … is going to be the new paradigm of managing land and water in the West,” he said.

Watch this: Efforts to understand the Musselshell River and to monitor changes in the river basin have gotten a big boost from aerial photographer Chris Boyer, the owner of Kestrel Aerial Services in Bozeman. He has taken numerous aerial photos of the Musselshell over the years and made them available to the Musselshell Watershed Coalition. To watch an amazing video he filmed during 2014 flooding on the Musselshell, go here.

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