Waterkeeper – Big Hole River Foundation Monitoring Collaboration

River conservation groups across the country work tirelessly to protect and restore our favorite trout streams. But are we as effective as we could be?

Three river conservation groups in Southwest Montana are banding together to answer just that.  We’re forging a model of science-based, locally implemented,watershed conservation strategies – and hope it’ll be on the agenda at your next river meeting.

Now more than ever, protecting our fisheries health is in our hands.  From lower flows or poor land planning, to the challenges of funding constraints or tough politics, today’s local watershed groups must do more, with less.  The precarious state of river health throughout the Lower 48 reminds us that many restoration projects occur where funding is available and implementation is convenient, rather than where restoration is most needed.  Equally troubling is the fact that restoration and conservation projects are rarely assessed for their effectiveness and almost never holistically assessed within the context of a rivers’ health.

The Big Hole River Foundation, Wild Waters Consulting, and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper are developing a first of its kind, holistic annual water quality monitoring program for the Big Hole River.  By analyzing biology, chemistry, and physical indicators of river health we will use strong science to identify pollution hotspots, target restoration projects, and gauge project(s) effectiveness under the broader umbrella of restoration aiming to enhance watershed resiliency.  Using science to inform conservation projects ensures time and money are well spent, resulting in bang-for-the-buckriver protection strategies that create measurable river improvements and cost-savings.

The problematic state of haphazard river restoration efforts across the country is driven in large part by our nation’s landmark river protection law: the federal Clean Water Act.  Enacted over forty years ago to protect and restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters, the Act leaves to states the role of assessing and, when necessary, restoring, polluted waterways.  While federal law requires states to periodically assess waterway and fisheries health, it doesn’t lay out clear requirements for how, where, or when states must act to restore degraded waterways.   In many states the lack of a clear restoration mandate has meant that river restoration and conservation projects only occur when funding –or political will – appears.

Point in case is Montana’s fabled Big Hole River: this extraordinary waterway is home to the last genetically pure segment of the fluvial Arctic Grayling, not to mention hosting world-class wild brown and rainbow trout fish populations.  Yet its health has only been scientifically-assessed once, over a decade ago, and then sadly showed disturbing downwards trends in unhealthy amounts of sediment and nutrients and unnaturally elevated temperatures, all of which threaten its blue-ribbon fisheries.  Since those ‘snapshot’ scientific studies decades ago, millions of dollars and countless hours have been spent by numerous conservation groups wanting to do the right thing: protecting a special place.

Now, the Big Hole River Foundation, assisted by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, are dead-set on using science to assess waterway health in the 155 miles of the Big Hole River, help the state of Montana develop up-to-date water quality and fisheries data that informs better management, and which will assist fellow local watershed groups in their shared quest to save a beloved blue-ribbon trout stream.

And we’re not stopping there. With the Big Hole River annual water quality monitoring project taking off we seek to collaborate with groups on the other eight major waterways that form the Missouri River for the same reason: using science to inform good management and ‘bang-for-buck,’ meaningful, river restoration and protection projects.

Join us in creating science-based river protection strategies in Montana and learn how you can develop a monitoring program in your watershed!


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