A Story About Our Headwater Creeks

Did you know that classic Montana rivers like the Madison, Jefferson and Missouri are dependent on headwaters for clean, cool flows?

A headwater is the furthest place in a river or stream from its estuary or confluence with another river, as measured along the course of the river. In Southwest Montana most of our headwaters arise in our mountains, starting as snowmelt and seeps or springs, slowly combining and growing into mountain creeks before ultimately flowing into our river valleys and joining primary tributaries of the Upper Missouri.

Headwaters Diagram


We cannot talk about headwaters without also talking about Montana’s long  tradition of resource development. Headwater areas of mountain ranges like the Tobacco Roots, behind communities like Virginia City and Pony, have held miners’ attention for centuries due to their concentration of metals and ores. While mining has contributed to economic growth, it also comes with guaranteed externalities, often experienced by local communities and watersheds in the form of environmental degradation.

Recently we did a pollution patrol and surveyed the type and condition of lands being authorized for industrial activity by the USFS and BLM in the Pony Creek drainage, several miles in the hills behind the town of Pony. Based on our initial reconnaissance and basic sampling it appears industrial activities – like huge dump trucks on small mountain roads, reclamation of old mine tailings, and crusher sites operating in floodplains – are creating significant negative impacts on the local landscape.

Our concern is not with industrial activities, mining, or reclamation activities – that type of land use has and will continue to be a part of Montana’s history and we, in general, support mine reclamation! Rather, we are concerned with our surveys and data showing degradation of  local, high quality headwater creeks, seeps, and springs where next to no Best Management Practices (BMPs) (think environmental mitigation measures) have been required, implemented, or maintained.

On federal land it is the responsibility of federal land managers like the BLM and USFS to require – and enforce – appropriate water resources protections. Conversely, on private land it is he Montana DEQ’s responsibility to permit industrial and/or construction activities that have potential to discharge to local waterways or wetlands and which disturb lands over 1 acre when several projects are part of a “common plan” that cumulatively encompasses more than 5 acres; likewise, individual operations that disturb 5 acres or more are likewise required to apply for and possess a stormwater permit.

These stormwater permits are not red-tape – they are meaningful, science-based rules that prevent unnecessary harm to our landscapes and waterways. In essence a stormwater permit  looks at the scope, intensity, and duration of landscape disturbance and requires appropriate BMPs. However, like we are seeing in operations behind Pony this Fall, not using BMPs unnecessarily risks the health of local water quality and downstream fisheries!

Take a look at the pics below to see examples of the type of unhealthy land use practices we’re documenting:

Here, bad siting of earth moving activities that are doing more harm than good. Common sense and science tell us "don't move earth in burn zones on steep slopes!"

Whenever a federal agency authorizes an action on public land they must perform mandatory environmental reviews pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that help officials discern the type and intensity of a proposed action, and in turn require the appropriate types of BMPs to mitigate environmental impacts in a final license, authorization or permit. Sadly for Pony Creek, a headwater of the Madison River, no such BMPs are being used, resulting in unhealthy amounts of erosion and sedimentation to that waterway.


Too much sediment in headwater creeks is bad in two respects: first, it degrades local water quality, fisheries habitat, and potentially local drinking water; and second, excess sediment in headwaters is bad news for downstream creeks and the mainstem Madison River, which are already suffering from too much sedimentation!

Sediment pours off unmaintained dirt roads and pollutes local Pony Creek

Keep tuned as we continue to investigate how we can help local citizens protect their local creeks and right to clean water!