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Lessons from the Musselshell: the aftermath


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

Floodwaters dallied in Musselshell River's floodplain for months, precluding any attempts at damage assessment or repair. The first priority was to restore community water systems and roads. Dump trucks, excavators, and graders were tied up for most of the summer repairing damage to basic county and city infrastructure. The ranchers would have to wait, watch, and wonder about the future of their livelihood.

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition arranged for an aerial tour of the river using LightHawk volunteer pilots and their planes. A delegation of ranchers, water user association managers, and river water commissioners took advantage of the opportunity to survey the devastation from the air, and their reactions ran from bemused to bleak.

The 2011 Musselshell flood washed out the approach to this circa 1907 abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad bridge and twisted the metal as if it were a wet lasagna noodle.

Peter Marchi, Chief Water Commissioner of the river for the reach running from Martinsdale at the upper Musselshell down all the way to the Fort Peck Reservoir, was surprised to see evidence of how the river had undergone channel shifting over its history, but noted that with this flood, the river tended to straighten its channels rather than create new oxbows. The river's new shorter path and steeper gradient does not augur well for the ranchers along the river during future flood events. His final comment was that he felt like “a man without a country,” with no downriver water flows to manage for the 2011 irrigation season.

One rancher from the Mosby area, not far from the end of the Musselshell's journey to the Fort Peck Reservoir, couldn't see a single diversion dam that had survived the flood intact. Some alfalfa fields in the floodplain had been under water since February ice jams raised water levels, and the plants were dead or dying by July. He was heartbroken at the speed with which the river destroyed all the work done over many years by ag producers.

A rancher whose operation is upstream of Roundup was slightly encouraged that some of the older fields that had good sod in place survived the river's attempts at erosion. He was glad he had not yet participated in state and federal agency programs for removal of Russian olive plants along the river bank. Russian olive seedlings were once distributed in abundance by those aforementioned agencies for a shelter belt and riparian planting. The hardy plant lost favor, however, and was even considered for classification as a noxious weed in Montana, after it proved itself formidable in competition with native shrubbery. But the tenacious transplant regained some respect, at least from ranchers, after it protected river banks from the flood's erosion.

All participants in the LightHawk flight were stunned at the obvious loss of production in fields that would normally be emerald green in July after a first cutting of hay and on their way to a second. Instead, the ranchland was brown, either from lack of irrigation water or from the thick layer of mud that buried alfalfa and grass. The only green groundcover in sight was a thick carpet of cottonwood and willow seedlings sprouting in the new mud and gravel bars in the river.

A green carpet of 6-inch cottonwood regeneration seedlings covers a gravel bar in the Musselshell River several months after the flood.

So, how did the Careless Creek experiment fare? Ranchers who spent 10 years bringing the important tributary back to health were disheartened when they could finally examine the creek by horseback, 4-wheel drive, or small aircraft. Willows so carefully planted and nurtured to an impressive 10-foot height were completely gone, with not a twig remaining. Most of the oxbows that once meandered in the creek bottom were gone, leaving a deep, straight channel with impossibly high banks in their place. Careless Creek has, since 2001, by agreement between the Deadman's Basin Water Users Association and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality been limited to carrying no more than a 100 cubic feet/second flow of water where the Careless Canal diversion from Deadman's Basin Reservoir meets the creek. During the worst of the flood, more than 4,500 cubic feet/second was pulverizing the banks, carrying debris and silt into the Musselshell at an astounding rate. Once again, ranchers on the creek lost fences, pumps, and equipment, and will be dealing with weed problems for the foreseeable future in spite of their back-breaking years of restoration work. Disheartened doesn't even begin to describe their mood.

The 2011 flood on the Musselshell River dealt misery and economic devastation to people along its entire length. Television news coverage focused on homes and businesses swallowed by rising waters, rather than the less exciting fields, fences and irrigation equipment that suffered the same fate. Those businesses have for the most part recovered and opened their doors to customers. Homeowners have either mucked out, dried out and moved back in, or they have found alternate housing. The impact on agricultural producers continues, with another irrigation season fast approaching. 

Ranchers cannot simply pick up and move, and without the ability to produce hay to feed their cattle, economic recovery is impossible. The cost of repairing the damage done by such an overwhelming overabundance of water is beyond the means of most of the producers in the watershed, and state or federal emergency funding is for the most part not available to them. The struggle toward recovery is likely to continue for years.

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition sought ways to help ag producers even before the waters began to recede. The next blog, Lessons From the Musselshell: Small Steps Toward Recovery, will highlight the Coalition's efforts on behalf of ranchers in the watershed.

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.

Images courtesy Wendy Beye.