The waters of the Musselshell River originate in the Little Belt, Crazy, and Castle Mountains in central Montana. Several small creeks join forces west of Martinsdale and gather momentum as they flow east and then north, carving a meandering 500-mile path (closer to 200 miles as the crow flies) through ancient seabeds to meet up with the mighty Missouri’s waters in Fort Peck Reservoir.
In Montana’s late twentieth century drought years, the Musselshell was notorious for seasonal “de-watering” as ranchers tapped it for irrigating parched fields, leaving fish and the mussels for which it was named trapped and suffocating in intermittent pools along its route.
An abandoned Milwaukee Road railway grade built in 1906 constricted the river’s flow and straightened many of its oxbows. The construction of Highway 12, one of Montana’s main east/west travel arteries, further interfered with its natural floodplain, allowing spring floodwaters to race downhill without soaking deep into the soil. Many acres of wetlands were cut off from their annual replenishment by the levies and became incorporated into hay meadows, losing their value as nature’s sponges.
Ranchers grew testy at the shrinking flow of irrigation water. Upstream users were blamed for downstream shortages, and no one had enough water. Montana’s Department of Natural Resources, responsible for monitoring the state’s water, and the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks also noticed the decline. It was time for action.
A study conducted by the state, the Bureau of Reclamation, and two Musselshell water users associations in 1998 concluded what was obvious: the watershed was in bad shape, had already been classified as chronically de-watered, and suffered from high dissolved salt levels, especially during late summer. The study outlined recommendations for improved irrigation efficiency, better communication between water user groups, and more accurate measurement of water diverted for irrigation.
By the time the millennium passed, water users in the Musselshell watershed were beginning to cooperate, and the resulting benefits of conserving and equitably sharing a precious resource were attracting more ranchers to the bandwagon. The river began to show signs of improvement, but had a long way to go before it could be called healthy.
Wendy Beye is a freelance writer living in Roundup, Montana. She is assisting the Musselshell Watershed Coalition in its efforts to balance the needs of the river with those of the agricultural producers who use its water. The next enn Lessons Learned From the Musselshell highlights a very successful rehabilitation of Careless Creek, an important Musselshell River tributary.