The Sun River: Flows Restored and Friendships Forged

Written by: Laura Ziemer, Trout Unlimited

Typical low summer flows on the Sun River near Augusta, MT
Photo by Laura Ziemer, Trout Unlimited

On the arid Rocky Mountain Front, water scarcity is a constant. The Sun River flows 70 miles from its headwaters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness out of the Rocky Mountain Front to join the Missouri River outside the town of Great Falls, Montana. Although rugged in its mountain beauty, it is often called “next-year country,” because of ranchers’ undying hope that “next year” things will be better—next year the rains will come, the crops will be better.

It’s a tricky problem, a river without water. And sometimes you feel the overwhelming odds are against you, looking at a riverbed’s dry, exposed rocks that should be under water. Tensions run high among water users when there’s not enough water to go around, and pointing out a dry river-bed just adds fuel to the fire. But the ironic thing about a dry river is that it is–at its core–hopeful work. You have to believe in a better day to come to engage in creating the solutions.

In that spirit, the Sun River Watershed Group brought together its partners—the Fort Shaw and Greenfields Irrigation Districts, the Broken O Ranch, the Bureau of Reclamation and Trout Unlimited– to create that better future for the river and the producers who rely on the Sun River’s water.

The Sun River’s day was more than 15 years in the making. The basin’s two Irrigation Districts and the Broken O (the largest ranch under irrigated production in Montana) divert most of the flow of the Sun River high in the basin to irrigate tens of thousands of productive agricultural acres, keeping the basin’s rural community vibrant and its working landscape strong. No one wanted to see that change.

But change needed to come if the Sun’s wild trout fishery was to persist.

The Sun will flow at thousands of cubic feet per second (cfs) as ‘The Bob’ releases its deep mountain snowpack to the sudden thaw of spring, but the river would often be reduced to a trickle of 50 cfs or less during the hot, dry days of summer below the irrigation diversions. A base flow of 130 cfs is needed to sustain the trout fishery.

The partners wrote grant proposals, hounded state legislators, hired engineers and contractors to propose an ambitious undertaking to convert a leaky ditch to a pipe and re-route a portion of canal to take the pressure off a sensitive bottleneck in the Irrigation District’s water delivery. With funding from the Coca-Cola Company secured to match the state and federal funding, the partners began installing 2,000 feet of new lined canal, 2,310 feet of new PVC pipe, retired an old section of irrigation ditch, and converted 4,860 feet of open ditch to PVC pipe. These improvements mean that the Fort Shaw Irrigation District can deliver irrigation water more reliably. It also means 9,185 acre-feet—3 billion gallons –each year added to the flow of the Sun River.

But the deeper reward is the friendships forged through adversity and shared persistence. The achievement is overcoming decades of hostility between agriculture and conservation; creating common ground and mutual benefit where before there was suspicion and distrust. The public and private funding partnerships, with Orvis and the Coca-Cola Company filling the gaps, show the depth of the effort. The river flows restored and the agricultural water delivered is evidence of a stronger community.

(Left to right) Laura Ziemer, Trout Unlimited; Rich Boyle, Fort Shaw Irrigation District; Dave Mannix, Mannix Brothers Ranch, on Sun River Project Tour
Photo by Jonathan Stumpf, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

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