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Watershed groups say planning key to drought resiliency

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Maintaining an equilibrium through periods of drought requires careful and deliberate planning of resource conservation. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEXELS.COM

By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – In a crowded room of approximately 70 at the Bozeman Lindley Center, homeowner Jeff Moore recently described what it was like to watch from his home as smokejumpers leapt from an aircraft while a separate plane dropped red plumes of fire retardant just a few miles away.

Moore, who owns property near O’Rea Creek west of Livingston, waited for the call to evacuate as the September 2017 fire quickly spread from a single bolt of lightning, coming uncomfortably close to his home.

“The way it came so fast, it really felt like we were just a tinderbox,” he said. “When there’s a big snow year, we’re not as worried about fire [but] when it’s a really small snowfield then we get pretty concerned about fire.”

Moore’s first-hand account was one of three given during the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council’s annual meeting on Jan. 30, and the impacts of drought were at the forefront of the night. In addition to Moore, fly-fishing guide Dale Sexton and Leavitt Group insurance agent Josh Pulst shared their experiences related to low stream flow due to drier seasons and the devastating loss that’s caused by fire.

“For most of us in the Gallatin watershed, drought remains a relatively abstract concept,” said GGWC board chair Lilly Deford. “Sure, we all dread smoke season, but we’re lucky. For most of us, it’s not our house going up in flames, it’s not our child’s tuition wilting in the fields, and it’s not our business loan going belly-up like the whitefish on the Yellowstone.”

However, Deford said she hopes the stories of others can serve as a reminder for how important watershed stewardship is. “We’re seeing drier spells march their way across the state,” she added.

Holly Hill, the coordinator for GGWC, said their organization works closely with farmers and ranchers in the Gallatin Valley. “In talking directly with agricultural producers in the area, it’s clear water shortages are becoming more likely,” she said. “Even after last year’s snow levels, by the middle of the summer, many producers were experiencing water shortages.”

Over the past three years, GGWC has worked in partnership with the Gallatin River Task Force, the city of Bozeman, Gallatin Conservation District and Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators, among others, in developing a watershed-wide plan for drought resiliency. A part of the larger planning effort by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for the Upper Missouri River Basin, this work takes a close look at the Gallatin watershed as a sub-basin to the Missouri.

An ongoing effort, this has led to the development of unique watershed stewardship programs based on community-specific interests.

“Everyone’s perspective of drought is a little different,” said Emily Casey, the water conservation coordinator for GRTF. Through public meetings and surveys, GRTF has been able to establish a water stewardship program for Big Sky.

“People [in Big Sky] were really interested and engaged in having this program where they could see individual participation,” Casey said. As a result, GRTF has implemented a series of rebate programs that encourage the community to save water by installing water-efficient home fixtures. This includes toilets and washing machines, as well as weather-based “smart” sprinkler systems.

While Big Sky enjoys a measure of natural insulation from the effects of drought—many north-facing slopes and the abundance of forest cover around rivers can help protect against rising temperatures—there is still an increased risk of wildfire during drier summers. Casey also said drought can impact the length of the ski season, which directly affects economics in the region.

“The natural features are a benefit, but I think a big part of it is the interconnectedness of the river and we need to be aware,” she said. “Users upstream need to be more proactive of how we’re using our resources.” In preparation for spring, Casey said the Big Sky community can be proactive by thinking about ways to implement water-wise landscaping and installing efficient irrigation systems that utilize rain sensors.

To further encourage water efficiency, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District charges customers on a tiered water-rate schedule, meaning homeowners who use more gallons of water are charged a higher rate per gallon. This contrasts sharply with the $30 flat rate the district once charged, which resulted in a lot of wasted water, according to BSWSD Water Superintendent Jim Muscat. He added that in 2018, the district used approximately half the amount of water that was being used on an annual basis in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“We have enough water currently,” Muscat said. “But conservation has always been a good idea.”

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