October 13, 2008

Stream of Ideas

By Halstead-Acharya, Linda

MCLEOD - The sky hangs heavy, teasing of rain, as three Boulder River ranchers peer into the hale. Fourteen feet down, water pulses with a perpetual squish, knock, squish, knock.

The unending beat reverberates from a ram pump, an old technology brought back to life on the West Boulder River.

"It needs gravity flow from the river," explains Stuart Stenberg, who installed the pump as a means of running water to a stock tank more than 4,000 feet distant. "There's no (electrical) power at all. They work off their own pressure, the water going in and the back pressure going out."

The ram pump is just one of numerous projects attributed to the backing of the Boulder River Watershed Association, an organization of landowners and agencies that share interest in the entire river basin.

According to the group's mission statement, the cooperative effort is dedicated to preserving and improving the land and water resources along the Boulder River, as it tumbles from an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet in the Absaroka Mountains to the town of Big Timber, roughly 70 miles north and 6,800 feet lower.

"There's such a variety of people in the Boulder (valley)," said Dan Rostad, coordinator of the BRWA. "On the main Boulder, there's only seven or eight traditional family ranches. The rest are nonresidents."

Rostad himself has deep roots in the valley, so he's glad to see the joint effort directed toward its improvement.

"This brings people together with the same vision and mission," he said. "That's what I'm excited about."

The Boulder River Watershed Association is one of 50-some watershed associations in Montana. It is one of only a few, however, east of the Divide. Officially formed in 2001, the BRWA has supported a variety of projects, including irrigation improvements, fuels reduction and weed control. It has also linked agencies and landowners on projects that divert water around corrals, thus improving water quality, and a program to purchase bear-resistant garbage cans.

Early on, the association funded a baseline study of the river and its tributaries. Conducted by Warren Kellogg, a former employee of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service, the study has since been used to garner a number of grants.

"He (Kellogg) virtually walked the entire length of the Boulder, the Fast Boulder and the West Boulder," Rostad said.

Matt Wolfe, environmental manager for Stillwater Mining Co.'s East Boulder Mine, sees the watershed association as a unique forum for drawing parties together, whether they be ranchers, miners, government agencies or cabin owners. Be points to on-the-ground improvements as evidence of the group's success.

"It (association) has gained a reputation for getting things done," he said.

Rancher Bill Brownlee, who co-chairs the group with Stenberg, was particularly impressed with the watershed's range rider program. Aimed at deterring wolf depredation of livestock, the program served as an example of how diverse organizations - the watershed association and the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance - could successfully co-op together, he said.

"All of the ranchers involved were happy with it," he said. "And the conservation group was happy with it."

At one point, the BRWA employed three range riders to scout ranches throughout the basin for wolves and wolf sign. The riders traveled by horse-back and carried cell phones - sometimes they'd have to scramble for high ground to get a signal. They became so wolf-savvy, Brownlee said, that they often knew more about local wolf activities than the biologists. But the range riders, since suspended due to funding cuts, were probably more appreciated by the area's small-time ranchers.

"A lot of us had lost livestock," said Roger Engle, a rancher and active member of the watershed association. "So, it was just a lot of peace of mind knowing that somebody was out there."

The northern spotted owl is no native to the Boulder River drainage. And yet, Engle traces his involvement in the local watershed group to a presentation involving the endangered species indigenous to Washington and Oregon.

As Engle tells it, his interest was piqued when a former SMC employee told a group of Boulder River residents how conflicts over the spotted owl spawned the formation of a watershed association in Oregon. That association, in turn, was able to unite disparate groups to restore logging to the area.

"That presentation, it was sort of the eye-opener," Engle said.

In fact, there were several key players responsible for creating the Boulder River Watershed Association. The Sweet Grass Conservation District has long been dedicated to promoting projects that benefit watershed resources. And Wolfe cites the Cottonwood Resource Council for working with SMC to weave the watershed concept into the framework of Good Neighbor Agreement, a pact between the mine and several conservation organizations.

"From Stillwater's perspective, the watershed association was an opportunity to put an investment back into the community and the local watershed," he said. "We have 600 employees who work in the area and play in the area, We have a vested interest in this and we look at it as long term."

Not only does the company consider the big picture, but it has offered big bucks. The Stillwater Mining Co. provided seed money to kick-start the association and has contributed roughly $250,000 of the $1.25 million spent - much of it in matching funds - on improvements along the Boulder and its tributaries.

Although the company's key focus is water quality, its support is much broader.

"We purposely take a hands-off role," Wolfe said. "And we don't consider our role to be any more important than any individual role of people at the table. Funding - that's the role easiest for us. It's just where we can chip in."

It's also the piece of the puzzle that gives the Boulder River group a distinct advantage.

It works for us because we don't have the funding," Brownlee said.

As Engle strides across a hillside of cut alfalfa, he points to a stretch of white, gated irrigation pipe that has made all the difference.

"This field probably hasn't been farmed for 35 years," he said. "We could get water across it, but we didn't have control. This year, we got two crops of alfalfa rather than one crop of grass."

The uneven hillside had long presented a challenge for ditch irrigation. Now, the gated pipe - purchased with assistance through the Boulder River Watershed Association offers a means for spreading the water more evenly.

In January of this year, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, in conjunction with the watershed group, published a report detailing the irrigation efficiencies along the Boulder River. It also describes the impacts of irrigation projects on the downstream water supply. The report not only provides a basis for grant applications, but it quantifies what locals have observed over the years.

"On the average gated pipe project, you probably save half the water and half the time," Stenberg said.

"With the same amount of water, it used to take 12 days to irrigate with dams," Brownlee said. "Now it takes four days."

"And you have half the weeds, because you don't have the ditch anymore," added Stacey Barta, coordinator of the Sweet Grass County Weed District and a member of the watershed association.

To date, nearly a dozen ranchers have replaced at least some of their ditch irrigation with gated pipes. By preventing water leakage from ditches, it's expected that the switch will yield increased flows in the lower stretches of the river, where the water level drops precipitously as the summer wanes.

Even before 2002's Derby and Jungle fires blackened parts of the Boulder River drainage, Dick Rath was talking fuels reduction in the drainage. But it wasn't always an easy sell, says the former Forest Service fire management officer who now heads the watershed's fuels reduction program.

Of the 200-plus landowners within the narrow boundaries of the Boulder Canyon - "Any landowner is a member," Stenberg said, few are permanent residents. In fact, one lives in the United Kingdom.

But Rath was eager to spread the word. So far, he's been successful in landing two $150,000 grants for fuels reduction. He turned to the watershed group to help him relay that message. In the past four years, more than 50 parties, many of them cabin owners, have signed up to participate.

"People are slowly but surely coming around to learning about it," he said.

This summer, the watershed association followed up with a workshop focused on the four W's: water, wildlife, wildfire and weeds. The one-day event provided hands-on information for owners of small acreages.

Simultaneously, it provided an avenue for Barta to talk about weeds.

Since 2001, Barta has lined up grant funding for four weed projects along the Boulder River and its tributaries. While there remains some resistance, weed control seems to be catching on.

Copyright Billings Gazette Sep 15, 2008

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