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Stream restoration set to begin in Big Sky

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Below the Lake Levinsky outlet near Big Sky Resort, the Middle Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River has been channeled to flow in a straight line. IMAGERY COURTESY OF JEFF DUNN


Three streams in Big Sky fail to meet state standards for water quality, but the Gallatin River Task Force plans to change that.

On Oct. 5, restoration began on the Middle Fork West Fork Gallatin River, just downstream of the Lake Levinsky outlet adjacent to Big Sky Resort. The Middle Fork is impaired due to excess sediment loading, nutrients and e-coli, and restoration efforts led by GRTF will help improve water quality while slowing the flow of water through our headwaters community.

“As a community, we’ve identified sustainability and water conservation as key objectives,” said Emily O’Connor, conservation director for GRTF. “This project is another step in the right direction. We hope it serves as an example of how to live in Big Sky with ecological integrity in mind.”

The effort represents part one of a multiphase restoration of the Middle Fork, and project partners will be installing beaver-dam analogs and other natural features to better replicate how water would flow through a landscape uninterrupted by human development. The features serve two purposes: to add an additional layer of filtration and to keep water from rapidly running off downstream. 

Aerial imagery from 1971 shows the natural, meandering path of the Middle Fork pre-dam.

To address sediment and alterations to streamside vegetation, bioengineering techniques will be used to restore a natural meandering riffle-pool sequence with increased floodplain connectivity, including wetland creation and natural water-storage features.

With funding from the Big Sky Resort Area District, the Moonlight Community Foundation and the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, the Middle Fork project is a collaborative effort toward shared community goals. 

“The Middle Fork stream restoration project will enhance habitat, mitigate drought conditions and improve healthy water resources in Big Sky,” said Amy Trad, Big Sky Resort’s sustainability specialist. “Our collaborative effort with the Gallatin River Task Force on rehabilitation is an important part of preserving our ecosystem, one of the core principles of the ForeverProject, the resort’s long-term roadmap for sustainability.”

Decades ago, channelization of the creek below the Lake Levinsky outlet created the unfavorable conditions that exist today, but this isn’t the only place where stream conditions have been altered.

“This stretch of the Middle Fork will serve as a case study,” said Kristin Gardner, GRTF’s chief executive and science officer. “We’re excited to share the results with community members throughout Big Sky and take steps to restore riparian habitat and floodplain connections along other streams, as well.”

Channelization of the Middle Fork below Lake Levinsky.

Along with the Middle Fork, the South Fork West Fork Gallatin River and the main West Fork Gallatin River are also impaired. Similar projects along these waterways could go a long way toward keeping the main stem Gallatin River from reaching the point of impairment, a fate that has yet to befall our backyard blue-ribbon stream.

“With the variety of threats facing the Gallatin, from climate change to high recreation pressure, we need to use every tool in the toolbox,” Gardner said. “By focusing our efforts on this impaired stream, we can strategically repair damage done while creating resiliency for an uncertain future.”

Everyone who visits and lives in the Upper Gallatin Watershed has a role to play in watershed stewardship. While restoration efforts are an important piece of the puzzle, we need everyone to pitch in to allow our waterways to meet water quality standards. Developers can utilize low-impact development techniques, residents can limit their use of pesticides and herbicides, visitors can practice leave-no-trace ethics and everyone can conserve water.

David Tucker is a conservation writer for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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