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Water Wisdom: A River of Resilience

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From the trees to the beavers to people, EBS columnist David Tucker illuminates the resilient components of the upper Gallatin River watershed. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO


Across the globe, this has been the Year of Resilience. In the communities of the upper Gallatin River watershed, it has been no different.

Starting in mid-March, when the coronavirus sent most of us into a state of lockdown, we have faced difficulty after difficulty, rising to meet the unknown and doing our best to overcome challenging conditions. At the Gallatin River Task Force, we hope the same can be said for the Gallatin River one day. It faces challenges, but we plan on overcoming.

In many ways, we are witness to the resilience of nature on a daily basis. A cutthroat trout that makes it through another brutal Montana winter is resilient. It adapts its behavior to the ice of winter and high flows of spring runoff, and in doing so, survives for another season.

Whitebark pine are resilient, weathering storm after storm high within the alpine basins where the Gallatin begins its downward journey. Faced with insect infestation, drought and wildfire, the most resilient trees cling to life among the rocks and thin soils.

Beaver are resilient, trapped to within an inch of their existence only to recover and reclaim their place as the ecosystem engineers they are programmed to be. Their presence on the landscape is felt up and down the food chain, from the miniscule macroinvertebrate to the massive moose.

And now we know that we can be resilient, coming together as a community to solve what we hope is the most significant public-health crisis of our lifetimes. We didn’t do everything right, and we are by no means out of the woods yet. Friends and neighbors have lost their lives, and many families, businesses and community organizations will never be the same.

But through what has been an undeniably difficult nine months, we have found ways to adapt to the challenges before us. We made sacrifices when we needed to, thought creatively about how to solve new problems and prioritized the collective at the expense of the individual—and by and large, when we committed to that approach, it worked.

As 2020 rolls into 2021, it is that same approach we will need to carry forward to ensure clean, healthy drinking water, ample in-stream flows for healthy fisheries and resilience in the face of a changing climate.

COVID-19 showed us that we need community to be successful. It also showed us that as a community, we are inextricably linked to clean water—in our homes, but also in our lives. We went to the river during some of the darkest days we have known as a nation, and the river was there for us. It kept us safe and connected us to our neighbors. It provided an escape from the news cycle and our endless Zoom calls. It cleaned our hands when that became a matter of life and death. And it reminded us that relative to many, we have it very good here along the Gallatin.

If we commit to the community approach to water conservation, the Gallatin will continue to give. New challenges will present themselves, and the Gallatin will continue to be resilient. As we prepare for the environmental challenges that are surely ahead, we can take our cues from the river, matching its generosity and resiliency to ensure we take care of it the same way it takes care of us.

David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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