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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Montana: Section 319 Success Stories, Vol. III

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Careless Creek Watershed Project:
Sediment Delivery Reduced by 25 Percent


Alice Wolff
Lower Musselshell Conservation District
406-323-2103 (ext. 101)
alice-wolff@ mt.nacdnet.org

Carole Mackin
Montana Department of Environmental Quality

Primary Sources of Pollution:

Primary NPS Pollutants:


Project Activities:

agricultural BMPs (including fencing, rangeland management)

reduced irrigation discharges

19 percent increase in riparian habitat

25 percent reduction in sediment delivery

fish populations rebounded


Severe bank cutting and loss of fencing were common on Careless Creek before streambank restoration.

Local initiative and voluntary participation contributed to the success of the Careless Creek Watershed Project. Careless Creek is a 100-mile-long tributary to the Musselshell River in central Montana. Agriculture is the main economic activity and land use in the 500,000-acre watershed. About a quarter of the land in the stream corridor is irrigated; the rest is mostly forest and rangeland.

Lower Careless Creek was classified as "moderately to severely impaired" in the 1988 state water quality assessment. Sediment and salts from return irrigation flows and other agricultural activities were the main pollutants. Artificially high summer flows were causing severe streambank erosion.

Broad-based collaboration

Local landowners, working with the Lower Musselshell Conservation District, began a process to address local resource concerns. In 1990 a 319-funded study led to the formation of a local steering committee. The steering committee brought together a broad coalition of private landowners and water users; federal, state, and local agencies; and private organizations to address resource concerns in the watershed. Collaborators include the Lower Musselshell Conservation District; Musselshell and Golden Valley County Commissions; U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service; Deadman's Basin Water Users Association; Upper Musselshell Water Users Association; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; Montana Watercourse; Deadman's Basin Cabin Owners Association; Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and Department of Agriculture; local schools; and the Montana Conservation Corps.

The steering committee developed a number of restoration goals for Careless Creek, including the following:

  • Reduce artificial flows down Careless Creek.
  • Reduce streambank and channel erosion on the lower 7 miles of Careless Creek.
  • Apply voluntary best management practices (BMPs) in the watershed above Deadman's Reservoir.
  • Improve native fisheries in the lower watershed.
  • Establish weed control plans for the watershed.
  • Restore Franklin Lake to a wetland.

Remediation approaches

Local buy-in was crucial to the project's success. Complex resource issues, involving water rights and allocations, had the potential to create conflict within the community. The watershed committee emphasized a nonregulatory, collaborative approach that attracted the participation of a majority of landowners and interest groups. Irrigation discharges to Careless Creek were voluntarily limited to 100 cubic feet per second. This flow reduction was made possible by infrastructure improvements to the water delivery system.

A number of agricultural BMPs were also implemented, including the installation of 56,000 feet of fencing to manage livestock grazing in critical areas and the installation of a 15,195-foot pipe and two tanks to provide off-stream livestock watering.

Measurable results

At the outset the watershed group established a tracking program to monitor implementation. As of summer 2000, the project had resulted in the restoration of 37,000 feet of streambank and a 19 percent increase in riparian habitat. Fifty-four percent of the stream corridor is no longer eroding. So far, prescribed grazing practices have improved rangeland management on 18,000 acres. These restoration activities have reduced sediment delivery to the Musselshell River by 25 percent.

The comprehensive monitoring plan uses a combination of water chemistry analyses, biological indicators, and physical habitat evaluations to measure progress. One indication of progress is obvious: fish populations have rebounded in the first 5 years of the project.

Phase II

To further reduce nutrient and sediment delivery in Careless Creek and the Musselshell River, 319 funds are being used to restore another 14,632 feet of degraded streambank by improving livestock waste systems, moving corrals off the creek, developing alternative livestock watering systems (solar pumps), excluding livestock from damaged riparian areas, and continuing to plant willows and grass. Other contributors are the Montana Renewable Resources Grant and Loan Program, the Deadman's Basin Water Users Association, and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Widespread recognition of success

In 1995 the steering committee organized a "Know Your Watershed" workshop, which marked the beginning of the committee's outreach and education program. The project's bimonthly newsletter, Careless Creek Country, won a state award for excellence. Other components of the outreach program have included outdoor classrooms and watershed tours.


After sloping and revetments, outdoor classes were held and willows were planted at the site.

Montana's governor and the Montana Watershed Coordination Council recognized this collaborative effort last summer with a Montana Watershed Stewardship Award. In November 2001 the project will receive a CF Industries National Watershed Award.


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Restoration in Muddy Creek:
Will a Name Change Be Needed?


Alan Rollo
Sun River Project

Jim Bauermeister
Department of Environmental Quality
jbauermeister@ state.mt.us

    Primary Sources of Pollution:


irrigation return flows
Primary NPS Pollutants:

Project Activities:

agricultural BMPs (including grazing management)

reestablishing riparian vegetation

increasead irrigation efficiancy

75 percent reduced sediment delivery

reestablishing habitat

Muddy Creek was aptly named. Until recently, the small tributary was carrying 200,000 tons of sediment a year into the Sun River west of Great Falls, Montana. Irrigation return flows were increasing the normal seasonal stream flow tenfold and scouring a deep, steep-banked gully. Muddy Creek had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted stream in Montana. The creek drains about 314 square miles of farmland, and agriculture—both livestock grazing and crop production—was the primary contributor of nonpoint source pollutants.

Supported by 319 funding, local landowners, conservation districts, and other partners formed the Muddy Creek Task Force in 1994. By 1998 the Task Force had achieved three of the four goals it had established at the outset:

  • Goal 1:  Reestablish riparian vegetation. 
    Watershed cooperators improved grazing management on 8 miles of stream corridor, installed 44,000 feet of riparian fencing, established six off-stream livestock watering systems, planted more than 8,000 willows and other trees and shrubs, and reestablished native grasses in riparian and upland zones.
  • Goal 2:  Reduce irrigation return flows. 
    A public education effort that included brochures, newsletters, a video and slide show, a project display board, numerous watershed tours, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation progress reports contributed to a 35 percent reduction in irrigation return flows. Most of the reduction was achieved by increasing irrigation efficiency.
  • Goal 3:  Reduce sediment delivery to the Sun River and Missouri River. 
    More than 400 barbs were installed to reduce bank erosion, and 13 drop structures were built to slow flows and stop headcutting. Reduced sedimentation is also a product of the first two goals—reestablishing riparian vegetation and reducing irrigation flows. The original goal was to reduce sedimentation by 75 percent in 5 years; the project did it in 4 years.
  • Goal 4:  Improve fisheries in the Sun River watershed. 
    Although it is too soon to adequately document an improved fishery, anglers have noted that the improved water quality is allowing fish to migrate back to Muddy Creek.

And there are other documented improvements—increased waterfowl and wildlife habitats from improved riparian areas, reduction of flood potential, reduced cost for maintaining roads and railroads, and a reduction of land loss by several landowners along Muddy Creek.

Duplicating success in the Sun River watershed

The Muddy Creek Task Force's successes were contagious. Soon groups were working throughout the Sun River watershed. In 1996 the Sun River Project received a 319 grant of $198,140 to continue work on the Muddy Creek Project, complete a comprehensive resource inventory of the Sun River watershed, and enhance the water quantity and quality of the Sun River. This project funded stream work on 8,000 feet of Mill Creek, 4,000 feet of the Sun River, and 4,000 feet of Duck Creek. Supplemental 319 funding from the 1999 Clean Water Action Plan helped fund restoration work on several segments of Elk Creek, another tributary to the Sun. By 1999 the in-kind contributions of the various partners had exceeded $2 million.

The Sun River Project is now in its third phase. A $135,480 section 319 grant is targeted at reducing erosion and irrigation return flows on the Sun River and its tributaries. The project is continuing to restore riparian habitat and promote the implementation of best management practices.

Broad-based partnerships

The Sun River Project is known for its broad-based cooperation. Participating entities include Cascade County, Teton County, and Lewis and Clark County conservation districts; the Muddy Creek and Willow Creek task forces; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey; Montana Departments of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources and Conservation, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Agriculture, and Bureau of Mines and Geology; Greenfields and Fort Shaw irrigation districts; Medicine River Canoe Club, Missouri River Flyfishers, Audubon Chapter, Russell Country Sportsman Association; and many others.

The Sun River Project has won numerous awards, such as the Montana Watershed Coordinating Council's Watershed Stewardship Award, Clean Water Action Plan's Showcase Award, and CF Industries' National Watershed Award.


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