Field Survey: Lower Jefferson River, Whitehall-Cardwell

The Lower Jefferson watershed of SW Montana is an interesting case-study in land management.

The river is heavily tapped for water rights, by local agricultural land use, and of course supports local fisheries and macroinvertebrate populations.

Last Friday one of our team floated a new section of the Lower Jefferson, from Whitehall-Cardwell. Here’s what we found.

We saw were multiple signs of unnecessarily harmful land use, like trampled riparian zones, cattle grazing along and watering in the river, and degraded riparian vegetation.

Failed maintenance of fencing on the Lower Jefferson River

Erosion and sedimentation from riparian zone degradation is one of the most important, and easy to tackle, types of water pollution in SW Montana. Too much sediment in out waterways literally muddies the water, can create unnaturally warm water temperatures, and in the process harm insect reproduction and fish health.
Cattle in the Jeff
Implementing scientifically-sound Best Management Practices (BMPs) is a proven mechanism to stop these types of diffuse pollution. BMPs are things like bank stabilization (by letting watercourses meander), putting up fencing to keep out cattle (who trample ground and significantly degrade local water quality), and maintenance and improvement of local riparian trees (which provide important shade and habitat for local waterways). However effective BMPs require positive collaboration with local landowners, dedicated funding, and support from our state to educate stakeholders on the importance of doing BMPs, as well as a commitment to enforce necessary water protections. Unfortunately it appears BMPs aren’t working for the Lower Jefferson.

Why do we have to worry about streambank erosion, bad fencing, and sedimentation? 

Short answer: unhealthy riparian zones hurts local water quality, our trout fisheries’ health, and can help incite nasty algae blooms. These types of consequences not only hurt local citizens’ ability to use and recreate in water, they also carry a financial price-tag: plenty of incentives (environmentally and economically) to keep things healthy up-front as it not only helps keep our waters swimmable, fishable, and drinkable, but its also cost-effective!

Long answer: Your right to fishable, swimmable, drinkable water comes from requirements in federal law.

The federal Clean Water Act requires each state to set water quality standards to protect designated beneficial water uses and to monitor the attainment of those uses for local waterways like the Jefferson. Fish and aquatic life, wildlife, recreation, agriculture, industrial, and drinking water are all types of beneficial uses. Streams and lakes (also referred to as water bodies) that do not meet their established uses are called “impaired waters.” These waters are identified on what’s called a 303(d) list, named after Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act, a section that mandates the monitoring, assessment, and listing of water quality limited water bodies. The 303(d) list is contained within a biennial integrated water quality report published by the State of Montana.

Both Montana state law (Section 75-5-703 of the Montana Water Quality Act) and section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act require the development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for impaired waters where a measureable pollutant (e.g., sediment, nutrients, metals, or temperature) is the cause of the impairment. A TMDL is a loading capacity tool and refers to the maximum amount of a pollutant a stream or lake can receive and still meet water quality standards.

Excess sediment was identified as a cause of impairment of aquatic life and coldwater fisheries in Big Pipestone, Little Pipestone, Cherry, Fish, Fitz, Halfway, Hells Canyon, and Whitetail creeks. Sediment impacted beneficial water uses in these streams by altering aquatic insect communities, reducing fish spawning success, and increasing turbidity.

Water Quality in the Jefferson

The Jefferson River is suffering from three types of pollutants: too much sediment, too hot of water temperatures, and some times too many nutrients.

Unhealthy sediment loading in the Jefferson comes from bank erosion, hillslope erosion, and unpaved roads. The most significant sources are from streambank and upland erosion as influenced by agricultural activities as well as reduced sediment trapping efficiency due to degraded vegetated riparian buffers.

Like we discussed above, implementating and maintaining best management practices (BMPs) for building and maintaining roads, timber harvesting, and suburban development as well as expanding riparian buffer areas and using other land, soil, and water conservation practices can improve the condition of stream channels and associated riparian vegetation in the Jefferson. Further, halting excessive sediment loading will also limit fine sediment levels, a key factor in protecting trout spawning areas and the stability of streambanks.

Similarly, temperature  is impairing  aquatic  life  on  the  Upper  Jefferson   River . Historic  removal  of  riparian  vegetation,  which  is  important  for   regulating  stream  temperature  by  providing  shade,  is  the  primary  cause  of  impairment.  Here the river will improve when we  improve  riparian  shade,  maintain  stable  stream  channel   morphology, and do a better job at water use efficiency, which keeps higher  streamflow  conditions  during  the  hottest  months  of  the  summer.

What Are We Doing to Help the Jefferson?

We’re documenting conditions on  rivers like the Jefferson throughout SW Montana. We use this type of scientific data to ensure water quality improvement plans – an essential component of the TMDL process that helps bring a waterway back to health – are using good science, and to ensure our government and local stakeholders are each doing their respective parts to protect and improve water quality. We also monitor plans for new land uses that may potentially affect water quality, like subdivision proposals and like major changes in land use.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details; just so, better health in the Lower Jefferson River will only be accomplished by making sure we have scientifically sound restoration plans that are transparent, accountable, and enforceable. This is what Upper Missouri Waterkeeper stands for: helping local citizens realize their right to local, clean, readily available water.