Lessons Learned From the Musselshell: River History

 

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

The waters of the Musselshell River originate in the Little Belt, Crazy, and Castle Mountains in central Montana. Several small creeks join forces west of Martinsdale and gather momentum as they flow east and then north, carving a meandering 500-mile path (closer to 200 miles as the crow flies) through ancient seabeds to meet up with the mighty Missouri's waters in Fort Peck Reservoir.

 In Montana's late twentieth century drought years, the Musselshell was notorious for seasonal “de-watering” as ranchers tapped it for irrigating parched fields, leaving fish and the mussels for which it was named trapped and suffocating in intermittent pools along its route.

An abandoned Milwaukee Road railway grade built in 1906 constricted the river's flow and straightened many of its oxbows. The construction of Highway 12, one of Montana's main east/west travel arteries, further interfered with its natural floodplain, allowing spring floodwaters to race downhill without soaking deep into the soil. Many acres of wetlands were cut off from their annual replenishment by the levies and became incorporated into hay meadows, losing their value as nature's sponges.

 

Ranchers grew testy at the shrinking flow of irrigation water. Upstream users were blamed for downstream shortages, and no one had enough water. Montana's Department of Natural Resources, responsible for monitoring the state's water, and the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks also noticed the decline. It was time for action.

 A study conducted by the state, the Bureau of Reclamation, and two Musselshell water users associations in 1998 concluded what was obvious: the watershed was in bad shape, had already been classified as chronically de-watered, and suffered from high dissolved salt levels, especially during late summer. The study outlined recommendations for improved irrigation efficiency, better communication between water user groups, and more accurate measurement of water diverted for irrigation.

 By the time the millennium passed, water users in the Musselshell watershed were beginning to cooperate, and the resulting benefits of conserving and equitably sharing a precious resource were attracting more ranchers to the bandwagon. The river began to show signs of improvement, but had a long way to go before it could be called healthy.

The next blog in the series, Lessons Learned From the Musselshell, will highlight a very successful rehabilitation of Careless Creek, an important Musselshell River tributary.

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 the river with those of agricultural producers who rely on its water.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...