Opinion: On the Musselshell, lessons in working together

Nowlin

Laura Nowlin, seen here on her ranch north of Winnett, is the coordinator for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition.

The Musselshell River is home to fewer than 10,000 people, but is a golden example of what makes Montana special and how Montanans are working to keep it that way.

The Musselshell flows 342 miles through the heart of Montana from Martinsdale to the Missouri River, irrigating nearly 85,000 acres on 250 farms and ranches.

Communities throughout cannot claim strength in numbers, but have demonstrated strength that comes from shared challenges and shared interest

Most days, the Musselshell is calm and idle. However, having lived and ranched outside of Winnett for much of my life, I have seen the power that flows through this river. I have also seen the power of neighbors helping neighbors, and the power of local organizations working together.

As the coordinator for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, an organization that was started in 2009 to address the needs of this region, I’m excited about the ways we’ve helped our communities in good times and bad.

The people of the Musselshell are no strangers to natural disasters.  In recent years, these have included floods in 2011, 2013 and 2014. We also saw big fires in 2012, only to be eclipsed this summer by the Lodgepole Complex fire.

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During the 2011 flood, the river crested four feet above flood stage, which left over 300 people stranded when roads were washed out or under water. For two weeks, they had to rely on their neighbors to bring them necessities like medicine, food, and drinking water, much of which was transferred by boat.

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition, along with our many partners, helped organize emergency repair projects, formed a technical advisory team to evaluate the damage, and learned of ways to lessen the economic, social and ecological impacts of future flooding events.

We worked with the city of Roundup and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to implement streambank stabilization projects and we continue to work towards updating our irrigation infrastructure, all of which lessens our community’s susceptibility to flood damage.

On July 19, 2017, these communities were tested again when lightning struck in northern Petroleum and Garfield Counties. The resulting fires exploded into the third largest wildfire in Montana’s recorded history.

Fueled by extreme drought and high winds, the flames eventually consumed 1,500 miles of fence — which cost an estimated $16.5 million to rebuild and left more than 9,000 head of livestock displaced with no grass to eat. No matter the intensity of the fire, local volunteer fire departments were the first to arrive — extinguishing eight fires that started in the same night, and soon after neighbors showed up to help.

Local landowner Mary Brown said it best: “Ranches can be rebuilt, but knowing who will be there for you when things get tough, that is irreplaceable.”

Neighbors upstream of the fires heard and saw what was happening.  The Deadman’s Basin Water Users Association decided to let stored irrigation water run downstream to be used in fighting the fires — a sacrifice made for neighbors by people also suffering from drought.

When the fire was finally extinguished, the difficult work of rebuilding began. The Musselshell Watershed Coalition worked with our partners at the Garfield County Conservation District to get work crews on the ground rebuilding fence in places equipment could not access, and we continue to partner to effectively manage our natural resources.

People across Montana understand that our communities and families thrive when we work together toward common solutions. Sometimes, we call it the “watershed approach.”

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition is one example of over 60 community-based organizations that work across Montana to conserve natural resources, protect clean water and keep our communities strong.

Montana watershed groups bring landowners and communities together to find innovative, practical solutions to be better stewards of natural resources during these changing times. The Montana Watershed Coordination Council is the voice of Montana watershed groups, connecting people and ideas across Big Sky Country.

Learn more and find a watershed group near you at www.mtwatersheds.org. You may be surprised — and inspired — by all the good work being done.

 Laura Nowlin is the coordinator for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition and serves on the board of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council. She lives on the family ranch with her husband and two children north of Winnett on a tributary to the Musselshell River. 

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