By Michael Howell
For years now the Bitter Root Water Forum has sponsored an annual spring field trip for high school FFA students titled “Future Irrigators of the Bitterroot,” hauling busloads of kids up to Como Dam and to various irrigation structures, fish screens, dairies and riparian restoration areas in the valley. There has always been a strong interest among the kids. Now, finally, adults were given the chance this past week and all forty spaces on the bus were claimed shortly after registration opened. Not only were the adults as eager to learn as the kids have been over the years, but they too were willing to stand out in the freezing rain and gusty winds with smiles on their faces as they learned a little bit about what turns out to be a very complicated subject: “Irrigation and Restoration in the Bitterroot.”
This tour, like the one for the students, began at Lake Como, where the Big Ditch begins. They got to hear from Bitter Root Irrigation District (BRID) manager John Crowley and Bitterroot Water Commissioner Al Pernichele. Only a small number of people in the valley have their fingers on the pulse of the Bitterroot River like these guys do. Between the two of them, they are, on a daily basis, making decisions that will directly and immediately impact irrigators and fisheries throughout the valley. It’s Pernichele’s responsibility to see that the water gets to where it’s supposed to go. There is a whole history and a whole lot of law related to that. Crowley gives people a look at the inner workings of the dam and a good explanation of how it all works.
From there the tour went out in the area along Tammany Lane east of Hamilton where they were supposed to see the complexities of the irrigation system in action at the “Bee Hive”, an area on the Daly Ditches where a “hive” of diversions take water to many different parcels of land, some to 100-acre fields, some to 100-lot subdivisions.
The weather, which no one complained about as it was dousing the fires that have filled the valley with smoke for weeks, prevented the group from visiting the Bee Hive but they did get to hear a bit from local rancher Brian Rouse about the difficulties involved in dispersing the water and how important it is for people making a living off the land. One person has the right to water hundreds of acres of cropland while a dozen or so of his neighbors all have the right to a few inches each to water their lawns. When the water supply gets tight some people can get a little hot under the collar.
That’s when someone like Tim Meuchel of the Daly Ditches Irrigation District will often have to step in and smooth some ruffled feathers. According to Meuchel, one big key to getting that done is getting the people together in one room.
“It helps a lot to get everybody in one room so they can meet face to face,” said Meuchel. He said real person to person contact can do a lot to resolve many of the problems. It’s not so easy to maintain unreasonable expectations and views based on misunderstandings when the other “ignorant” person is standing right there in the room with you, he said.
“These things can generally be worked out,” said Meuchel.
The group also got to hear from a small irrigator about ways in which small water users can conserve the resource with good results by using drip irrigation methods.
At the last stop on the tour along Skalkaho Creek, fisheries biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Chris Clancy, talked about the benefits that a thriving riparian area can provide to a stream ecosystem. He discussed the various ways in which landowners can mitigate the effects of nitrogen laden run-off into the streams, such as planting or maintaining a vegetative buffer along the stream banks. The Bitter Root Water Forum has sent out teams of volunteers to help local landowners do this kind of restoration work on many of our most impaired waterways.
Julia Wochos, AmeriCorps worker at the Water Forum, said that she believed “all the tour attendees left with a better understanding of stream restoration techniques to buffer pollution, as well as of the challenging work irrigators put in to make the Bitterroot thrive.”
The tour was funded in part by a grant administered by Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana. Funding for the Water Quality Mini Grant program was provided by the Department of Environmental Quality’s federally funded 319 program. Mini Grants help fund local education and outreach efforts that address nonpoint source water quality issues.