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Every Drop Counts: Consider a water wise landscape

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A local example of water wise landscaping. Planting native plants and using efficient irrigation practices will help restore habitat, conserve water, and save money. PHOTO BY MARK CASTANEDA

By Marne Hayes EBS Columnist

With all the recent heavy rain, the unprecedented floods, and the shattered records for high river flows, it is hard to consider that Southwestern Montana may still be facing a potential drought. But considering our water table, the long- and short-term implications of a lower snowpack year and a late season, quick onset of rain and highwater runoff, it is more important than ever to be mindful of the summer months ahead, and how we address water conservation, including in the spaces both in and outside of our homes.

Landscapes in Big Sky are part of the Gallatin River Watershed, and our landscaping choices influence water quality, water quantity, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities reliant on a healthy river. With summer water use in our community outpacing winter use by nearly seven times, thoughtful landscape design and maintenance are the keys to creating a water-wise landscape, conserving water and protecting the Gallatin River’s sustainability.

Landscaping that requires considerable irrigation contributes largely to wasted water through evaporation. In fact, 65 percent of water used in irrigation is lost when we water our lawns and landscapes in the heat of a summer day. This puts enormous pressure on our water resources, lowering the flows of the Gallatin and its tributaries while exacerbating water quality challenges that already exist.

By planting native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs instead of the traditional green-grass lawn, and incorporating efficient irrigation practices, we can actually use the spaces in our backyards and around our homes to restore habitat while conserving water, saving time and money.

There are several resources that can provide helpful landscaping tips for our drought-prone mountain environment—and which offer guidelines and principles for planting that optimize water use while maintaining flexibility in the design of healthy, attractive, cost-effective and water-wise landscapes. Our Big Sky Water Wise Landscape Guide is a good place to start. This planning tool outlines several basic principles that are easy to implement and guarantees a more mindful way of creating a space that saves water, habitat and clean and healthy flows in the Gallatin.

Things to consider as you get started on your own journey for more water-wise landscapes:

  1. Start with a Plan: consider the elements of your own space that include sunny, windy, shaded or
    sloped areas.
  2. Design Like a Pro: incorporate ideas for practical lawn areas, mulch and plants grouped by watering needs, or areas of shade or sloped areas.
  3. Soils are the Secret: soil textures and organic matter are key influencers in how soils store water. Think, water-holding capacity: how water moves naturally through your soil will be key to how efficiently you can use water to optimize plant health.
  4. Go Native: native plants grow in better balance with nature in their endemic regions. In Big Sky, those native characteristics include drought tolerant and fire tolerant plant choices that are also quick to mature, hardy in low temperatures, and can adapt to dry, rocky or sandy soils.
  5. The Grass Isn’t Always Greener: meaning, lawns are usually the biggest culprit of inefficient water use in our landscapes. Where water is scarce, highly irrigated and maintained areas of green grass don’t make sense, consider a more drought tolerant grass species instead.
  6. Irrigate Efficiently: think about how to optimally deliver efficient water to your landscape. Plan ahead to reap the benefits that efficient irrigation will bring to your landscape.
  7. Maintenance is Key: all landscapes require care and maintenance to thrive, and a water-wise landscape is no different. Take good care of your native areas, follow recommended guidelines for efficient planting and smart irrigation, and your landscape will help you conserve water, habitat and money in the long run.

Saving water in your landscape is a small way you can make a huge difference for the Gallatin River, and transforming your landscape should be easy, so check out the new outdoor rebates offered by the Gallatin River Task Force for residential and commercial properties, for purchase and installation of drip irrigation, use of water-wise plants, turf conversion, rain sensors, and more. Taking advantage of the rebates helps save even more money and water all for the good of the Gallatin.

To top it all off, taking our Trout-Friendly Pledge solidifies your commitment to keeping water in our rivers, our streamflows high, and addresses our goal to be more resilient to drought and our community’s sustainable water use.

If you have any questions, need more resources, want to apply for rebates, or want to dig into your own water- wise landscaping, you can visit And remember, every drop counts.

Marne Hayes is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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