MISSOULIAN 8/13/13 Bitterroot River level drops to 30-year low

Aug 13, 2013
August 13, 2013 9:45 pm  •  By Rob Chaney

Bitterroot River floaters better brace for some long drags as a tough water year heads toward the end of irrigation season.

The usually multi-channeled river shows lots of sandbars and few braids as it flows past Hamilton, Stevensville and Florence. Lake Como’s reservoir looks like a dirtybathtub. The river gauge at Buckhouse Bridge south of Missoula reports 30-year low levels.

“And we’re 15 or 16 days into those lowest-recorded flows,” said Jed Whiteley of the Clark Fork Coalition during a flight over the Bitterroot Valley with EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon Tuesday. “Without Painted Rocks Reservoir, the Bitterroot would be pretty much dry.”

Tributary streams like Lost Horse Creek and Burnt Fork Creek have almost nothing left for the river after the valley’s irrigators take care of their crops.

“On Monday, the total flow was 230 cfs (cubic feet per second) at Bell Crossing,” said J.R. Iman, Ravalli County commissioner and president of the Painted Rocks Water Users Association. “In a normal year, the goal at Bell Crossing is 400 cfs. This year it will get as low as 175. There’s not enough water in the drainage to go around.”

Iman said many Bitterroot farmers switched to cereal crops that require less irrigation this spring in anticipation of a lean year. But those who raise corn, sorghum and hay will need another watering period soon.

“Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, irrigation water will be turned up two to three times so they can finish the corn and alfalfa crops,” Iman said. “Usually, 95 percent of our water is taken out by Sept. 15.”

A combination of getting less than 70 percent of the average winter snowpack, a warm spring with a high-water peak of May 11, and about 20 days in June and July with temperatures over 90 degrees produced a trifecta of bad luck for the Bitterroot River drainage in 2013.

The resulting bony river prompted the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to impose “hoot-owl” restrictions in the main stem of the river on July 23. That prohibits fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight when water temperatures are highest.

The upper Clark Fork River between Perkins Lane and Flint Creek, and from its confluence with the Bitterroot west of Missoula to the Flathead River, is also under hoot-owl restrictions.

FWP Region 2 fisheries manager Pat Saffel said the recent stretch of cool weather and August’s longer nights have actually helped fish in the Bitterroot. Irrigators have also not been taking their full allotments of water from the river, which has helped in-stream flows.

“We haven’t been looking at more restrictions on the Bitterroot,” Saffel said Tuesday. “When flows get really low, we can have fish congregated in pools, and then they become more susceptible to angling. But we haven’t seen that in the Bitterroot at this point.”

What biologists have been seeing is a higher-than-usual mortality of cutthroat trout, especially in the waters above Hamilton.

“The hoot-owl restrictions there were mainly for helping cutthroat, which are easy to catch and more sensitive to temperatures than rainbow or brown trout,” Saffel said.

The Blackfoot River is still unrestricted for fishing, but it’s reaching a low-flow level that could affect ranchers and farmers there.

“It got down to 650 cfs late last week, although now it’s closer to 670,” Saffel said. “We have an in-stream flow right that triggers at 700 cfs, where we can ask junior users to conserve water under drought plans. We’re going to send out notification we’re below that level, and ask for drought plans to be implemented so we can keep flows at a level that’s healthy for the fishery.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.