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Partners support watershed restoration planning

Photo credit: Danielle Tholl

In the development of both the Thompson River Watershed Restoration Plan (WRP) and the ongoing update of the Lower Clark Fork Tributary WRP, partners make key contributions of technical and financial support. While the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group is the sponsor of these two plans, we seek to develop a plan that reflects to goals and priorities of all stakeholders. But what’s in it for them?

Recently, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) fisheries biologist, Ryan Kreiner, shared his insight on the value of the Thompson River WRP in the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society Outlet from June 2018:

Goals of river restoration vary from water quality improvements to increasing fish populations. When it comes to site selection, there are many reasons some tributary streams may be overlooked by fish biologists. Most often it is because the streams are filled with undesirable species, or the habitat is too far gone. Resources are often scarce, and most funding sources specify the species they intend to benefit. In the lower Clark Fork River, most of the mainstem habitat is completely and permanently altered by the presence of three hydroelectric facilities. Due to the volume of water present in the Clark Fork River (Montana’s largest river by volume), small direct tributaries to the reservoirs have minor impact on overall water quality or temperature. So, the few streams with healthy native species populations get the attention and small streams with non-native trout and no recreational fisheries are ignored. However, there are still a few functional multi-order stream systems present. In these cases, every bit of cold, clean tributary water can have an impact on overall water quality and temperature.

So, how do we justify spending money in a system that is “too far gone”? When we direct all our resources into streams with the best fish, are we always accomplishing good? As we know, species composition is largely driven by current habitat condition, therefore certain species only exist if the stream is in relative good health. In the Thompson River, the largest tributary stream by drainage area is the Little Thompson River which is listed as impaired under the TMDL program for excessive sediment and nutrients. Recently, FWP began surveying the drainage looking for potential restoration projects and for remnant populations of native cutthroat. We used this information, along with information from the primary landowners (Weyerhauser, Montana DNRC, and USFS), to assist the Lower Clark Fork Watershed group in constructing the first-ever Thompson River Watershed Plan. In this plan we identified many projects we hope to accomplish in the future. The projects range in size, intensity, and duration and may have both immediate impacts on local populations of fish, or in many cases are just a small step in the overall recovery of the system. Coordination between groups was the key to identifying common goals, and on-the-ground field work was the key to identifying specific projects.

Additionally, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana included the Thompson River Watershed Restoration Plan in their 2017 annual report as an example of watershed restoration planning success:

In late 2015, SWCDM launched a program to provide technical and financial support to conservation districts and other organizations for development of Watershed Restoration Plans (WRP).

These WRP documents serve as planning tools developed with broad stakeholder support, including conservation districts, to improve water quality within their watersheds.

Five WRPs were developed through this program and accepted by DEQ in early 2018. With these plans completed, nearly all major watersheds in western Montana now have a WRP. Documents were developed by the following organizations: Beaverhead Conservation District, Flathead Conservation District, Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group, Missoula Valley Water Quality District, and Trout Unlimited.

One of the most challenging and critical aspects of WRP development is developing a broad stakeholder group. The Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group (LCFWG), led by Brita Olson and staffed by former Big Sky Watershed Corps member, Sarah Bowman, did a spectacular job with this effort while developing the Thompson River WRP. Nearly 20 partners were engaged and participated throughout the process, which included identifying priority areas, ranking restoration projects, and providing technical document review.

When asked how LCFWG accomplished such broad and focused participation, Olson said they began key stakeholder outreach before agreeing to develop the WRP to ensure everyone was engaged from the start. LCFWG led the charge, but kept an open format where stakeholders were regarded as the experts and feedback was incorporated throughout the process.

Olson described one of the biggest challenges being the balance of remaining flexible to stakeholder input, while also managing the administrative tasks of securing funding, meeting deadlines, and managing staff time. The flexibility certainly paid off in the end. “This process started as a checklist item to receive funding, but ended as a very valuable exercise and the collaborative approach taken built successful partnerships that will lay the groundwork for future restoration in the Thompson River watershed.”

We couldn’t agree more and are excited to see what comes next as LCFWG, the districts, and other organizations work with partners to implement their plans.