Lessons From the Musselshell: small steps toward recovery


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

While the Musselshell River's rampaging waters were still receding and ranchers were just beginning to assess the extent of the damage thus revealed, Musselshell Watershed Coalition (MWC) members met to address immediate needs along the river.

MWC was organized in 2009 to encourage cooperation between state and federal water resource agencies, conservation districts, water user associations, wildlife agencies, and agricultural producers in managing a frequently scarce commodity – water – while protecting the health of the river system that delivers it. The Coalition was in the process of gathering data on irrigation infrastructure along the Musselshell when the 2011 flood hit. Relationships nurtured since the Coalition's inception proved valuable in development of a team approach to post-flood rehabilitation.

Aerial photo of Deadman’s Basin Water User Association diversion dam after the flood.  Note the huge “scour hole” downstream of the dam. Image courtesy Teri Hice.

 The first move was to request a Reclamation and Development Planning Grant (RDPG) from Montana's Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) to fund a proposed Musselshell Watershed Rehabilitation Project. In light of the emergency situation, the DNRC's positive response was immediate. Some of the money paid for extensive aerial photography documenting the flood and its aftermath along more than 200 miles of river.

Creation of a technical advisory team was also approved. The tongue-in-cheek name was the RAT Team (River Assessment Triage Team), and members of the team included a contracted professional river geomorphologist, representatives from the state's DNRC and Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), local conservation districts, and water user associations. The team began visiting ranches in September, and completed its assessments of 43 different sites by year's end. As the team prepared its reports and recommendations, it focused on water delivery, access, power, breach repair, bank erosion repair, and more broadly, general river health. Projects were prioritized according to current functionality of irrigation systems (or lack thereof), economic impact, urgency, and available agency assistance.

Engineers examine the Deadman’s Basin Water User Association diversion dam in February, after diverting water around the dam.  Large voids were discovered underneath the concrete structure that allow water to leak through and erode the streambed.  The dam will have to be replaced. Image courtesy Teri Hice.

Ranchers who met with the RAT Team were supplied with technical information and recommendations that allowed them to begin weighing options and making financial decisions. Many of the ag operations, which are mostly family-run, could not come up with enough cash to pay for repairs to their irrigation systems, fencing, and roads, nor to level fields that were covered in undulating drifts of mud. With no water to irrigate, and no fields to harvest, they were forced to buy expensive hay for their livestock, paying to transport it hundreds of miles from areas that had not suffered flooding.

 The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) folks were in the communities along the river, helping to restore homes, but ranchers found they did not qualify for assistance from that particular pot of money. The governor of Montana declared an emergency, and some state funds trickled down, but most went to water user associations for repairs rather than to individual producers. MWC meetings were peppered with references to EWP, EQIP, ECP, RRGL, RDG, IDG, 319, HB223 (all grants and loans), as well as 310 and 318 permits. The Coalition had to figure out a way to match up assistance programs with needs, and to help ranchers deal with stacks of paperwork required by a maze of regulations. Hit-and-miss connections were just not working to solve complex problems.

 In December, 2011 Bill Milton, a local dryland rancher who serves as Facilitator for MWC, proposed a meeting that would personally introduce agency representatives to the end-users of water in the Musselshell basin. The meeting was scheduled for mid-January in Roundup, and fingers were crossed for good winter traveling conditions. On the day of the meeting, the room was packed full. A state bureau chief sat next to a rancher, who shared space with a water user association project manager, who rubbed shoulders with an NRCS field office employee, and so on around the tables. Karin Boyd, the geomorphologist from the RAT Team, set the meeting's tone with a sobering review of the devastation caused by the flood, graphically illustrated with aerial and on-the-ground photos. Ms. Boyd said that in all the years she's studied rivers, she has never before seen a single flood event cause as many dramatic changes in a watershed landscape. By the end of the presentation, the agency representatives present were sitting in stunned silence.

Next came summaries from the four water user groups along the river. Costs to repair the system of diversion dams and canals that allow storage and delivery of water to irrigators added up to more than $1.2 million. Until the associations could obtain financial assistance, work would have to be postponed on many of the projects. Ranchers would face sharp increases in the cost of their contract water purchases to help pay the local cost shares even after grants were approved.

 Finally, several local ranchers spoke quietly about their initial desperation after seeing the destruction on land under their stewardship. They didn't know how to begin taking the necessary steps toward recovery. All agreed that the visits and specific advice offered by the RAT Team were a great help, but now they needed technical assistance to implement the suggestions.

 Meeting attendees reached a consensus on how to proceed. The RAT Team would continue to offer technical assistance to ranchers, conservation district administrators would attend a grant-writing workshop funded by scholarships offered by Montana's DNRC, and MWC would continue its efforts to coordinate grant applications to leverage the funds available to producers, conservation districts, and water user associations.

 One conservation district employee succinctly summed up the meeting with, “We should leverage this catastrophe for the public good.”

Future blogs will follow the progress of ranchers in the Musselshell River basin as they continue to work toward flood recovery and land rehabilitation.

 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 the agricultural producers who rely on its water.

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