Lessons From the Musselshell: The Careless Creek Experiment


Editor's note: This is the second blog in a series by contributor Wendy Beye, chronicling a restoration effort on Montana's Musselshell River.

Careless Creek is one of the main tributaries feeding the Musselshell River. Its flow begins in the Big Snowy Mountains and is augmented by Swimming Woman Creek as well as by a canal that channels water from Deadman's Basin Reservoir into the river to meet downstream irrigation contract demands. By the 1980s it was a poster child for a problem facing many Western streams at the time: severe bank erosion and the resulting high sediment levels that destroyed its warm water fishery in the last gasping 15 miles of its life.

There was no easy solution to Careless Creek's problems. In 1992 a steering committee made up of representatives from water user associations, state and federal resource protection agencies, the state wildlife division, and agricultural producers hashed out a plan to tackle the creek's ecological degradation. The first task was to determine the causes that led to the creek's condition.

 The main culprit was unrestricted livestock access to the creek. Cattle had stripped away protective vegetation and their hooves had accelerated sloughing of the creek's clay banks. Runoff from corrals and a cattle feedlot dumped algae-producing nutrients into the water.

A second blow came from artificially high summer flows as water was released from Deadman's Basin Reservoir via the creek. The fast-flowing water chewed away at already fragile banks. The combination of spring runoff and late season flows was eating up pastureland and fences at an alarming rate, and dumping the material into the Musselshell River.

By 1998, the steering committee adopted a list of challenging goals:

  1. Reduce artificial flows,

  2. Reduce streambank and channel erosion

  3. Establish voluntary Best Management Practices throughout the watershed,

  4. Improve fisheries,

  5. Establish weed control,

  6. Reduce or eliminate artificial flows from Malloy Ditch into Careless Creek

To accomplish these goals, the group, which had no enforcement authority, needed the cooperation of producers along the creek, as well as those downstream on the river. In 1995, three years before the adoption of the goals, a workshop was held in the area, and producers were encouraged to discuss ways they could help in the restoration process. They also learned how a healthier stream could improve their business bottom line. The steering committee began publishing a newsletter that later won a state award for excellence. The educational efforts paid off, and the project gained wide support in the watershed.

 The hard work of reaching the established goals began. Erosion-prone banks were protected by placing recycled Christmas trees along them, planting willows, and by moving fences and developing groundwater resources to keep livestock from watering in the creek. The nutrient load in the water was reduced by moving corrals and the feedlot away from the creek. High summer water flows were controlled by channeling more irrigation water from the reservoir to a canal, and using water meters to assure that lower flows were being properly maintained while downstream producers received their promised water. The restoration was creatively funded through grants from the state and federal government resource protection agencies, with producers paying their fair share.

After two years, the results were obvious:

  1. 37,000 feet of streambank restored

  2. 19 percent increase in riparian habitat

  3. 18,000 acres of rangeland improved by application of best practices

  4. 25 percent reduction in sediment delivery

  5. fish population dramatically increased

In 2000, the project won the state's Montana Watershed Stewardship Award, and in 2001, a CF Industries National Watershed Award. The real reward, however, was a creek that was closer to meeting its natural potential.

 The participants in the project were pleased with the results, and continued to work on additional improvements. They had no idea that Mother Nature was about to serve up an unpleasant surprise, but by improving their 15-mile section of Careless Creek, they unknowingly accomplished much more than the restoration of a scenic stretch of flowing water.

The next blog in the series Lessons Learned From the Musselshell will describe the unwelcome surprise served up by Mother Nature in the spring of 2011.

Wendy Beye is a freelance writer living in Roundup, Montana. She is assisting the Musselshell Watershed Coalition in its efforts to balance the needs of a healthy river system with those of agricultural producers who rely on its water.