Sun River Watershed

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The Sun River Watershed (SRW) is in west-central Montana covering 1.4 million acres of diversified landscape, including Forest Service wilderness, critical wildlife winter habitat, rangeland, irrigated cropland and several small communities. The river flows for approximately 110 miles, contributing its water to various uses until it mingles with the nation’s second largest river, the Missouri, near the historic city of Great Falls.

A partnership, the Sun River Watershed Group, has been formed to coordinate needs. Teamwork is the driving force behind the success of the project. Key decisions and direction are formulated during the group’s annual meeting. The day-to-day operation is led by three conservation districts, with special work groups meeting as directed. Opinions are integrated by the watershed coordinator at their respective board meetings. A consensus process is used to reach an agreement with all of the partners.

The major land users of the area are agricultural, so they play a role through their respective organizations with are the irrigation and conservation districts. Numerous conservation groups and many businesses contribute funds, time and ideas to the project. Over 20 local, state and federal government agencies actively participate providing guidance and suggestions. All participants have a voice.

Community Outreach

The outreach and educational components of this project have been crucial in building trust by keeping everyone aware of proposed actions and involved with the effort as a whole. Public meetings, regular newsletters, coordinated meetings and direct contact are some of the measures utilized.

Brochures, television news spots, many newspaper articles, county fair presentations, slide shows, workshops and field tours also aided in reaching a very diverse cross section of the public and educating them about project issues. Several teachers have been enlisted to help youth learn about the watershed. Landowners are contacted through several member organizations as well as one-on-one when doing project assessment, planning and implementation work.

While outreach is conducted through many of the member organizations and agencies, all efforts are synchronized by the watershed coordinator for continuity and maximum effectiveness.

Innovative Non-Regulatory Action

Over the years, controversy was a way of life in the basin, with battle lines drawn over the issues of water rights, erosion causes and effects, water for fisheries, water quality conditions and recreational needs. This “tug-of-war” drastically changed about 12 years ago, when the Muddy Creek Task force organized the conflicting parties into a group working as a team to voluntarily resolve one of the worst nonpoint source pollution problems in Montana. The group ascertained innovative and proactive ways to tackle a problem that had stagnated for more than 30 years. From the beginning they agreed, once the project had a good start, to expand the boundaries and participation to encompass the entire Sun River Watershed. After just a few years, following demonstration of many successes in Muddy Creek, project leaders felt it was feasible to attack the larger area using proven collaboration skills and techniques.

Education is the primary instrument by which the project functions to insure everyone has a similar opportunity to understand issues, even though values may differ. Realizing that regulatory solutions to issues frequently designate a winner and a loser, the watershed’s approach has made successful use of a collaborative process to facilitate consensus. Groups and individuals are empowered to play a major role in their own destiny. Numerous win-win outcomes have been achieved through this process dealing with contentious water quality and quantity issues among others.

Interdisciplinary Approach

The public was initially asked to identify their concerns in this watershed. Their input was used to develop goals, direction, and specific program needs. At every level, a number of areas of professional expertise was used to evaluate concerns and to determine priorities based on the publics’ comments. Quantification of issues and natural resources has been accomplished through field assessments conducted by teams of resource professionals from the private and public service sector. This watershed mandates an open-minded, comprehensive approach to meeting the goals of the project. This intent is met through the involvement of a diverse, active membership spanning a range of interests and aptitudes focused on the “big picture”. As such, the SRW plan goals target a panoply of issues ranging from sustainable agriculture, to noxious weed bio-control to fishery issues to on- and off-farm irrigation improvement, to ground water quality, to stream stability, etc.

Achievement of Measurable Goals

Results of project actions and progress are monitored through multiple means. Monitoring at USGS gauging stations, water quality grab sample stations, photo points, station transects, as well as public opinion are used to ensure that actions are on track with established goals. Documented achievements are:

  1. stabilized 20 miles of a 40 mile stream segment considered the worst nonpoint source issue in the state through reducing the sediment load by 80% (from 200,000 tons/year to 30,000)
  2. restored 4 miles of primary fishery and spawning habitat on the Sun River and tributaries with designs prepared for an additional 30 miles
  3. implemented grazing management prescriptions on 50,000 acres of rangeland
  4. released thousand of insects for the control of noxious weeds
  5. cooperatively installed AgriMet stations to improve irrigation efficiency and reduce irrigation water consumption; 6) lined 800 feet of irrigation canals
  6. automated numerous canal gates to improve water control and improve efficiency
  7. obtained well over $10 million to date from more than 50 grant and cost share funding sources to achieve the above results and numerous others currently underway.

Other indications of favorable results are the inclusion of the SRW in several state and national publications. Lastly, the SRW was selected as a co-recipient of the first annual Montana Watershed Stewardship Award in 1999. In his presentation comments, the Governor of Montana, Marc Racicot, said “Deciding how much of what (resource) is enough and when good is enough or is not enough is a challenging process for any people or government to meet. Yet many of you here today have discovered a better way to meet this challenge. Better in the process, better in practice and better in the outcome…better for all in the long run.”

Sun River Watershed Group Contacts

816 Grizzly Drive
Great Falls, MT 59404
Program Contact: Alan Rollo, Watershed Coordinator
Phone: (406)727-4437 Fax: (406)727-3741
Date Program Became Operational: Dec. 10, 1994