The Sun River Watershed group leads projects and programs that support our mission to work collaboratively to protect and restore the resources of the Sun River watershed and its communities. Our programs restore and protect the health of the Sun River watershed, including improving water quality and streamflows, enhancing fish and wildlife habitat, and weed control. We also provide outreach and education to local communities about watershed issues.
For nearly 20 years, Rai Hahn has collected water quality data from April through October on the Sun River and many tributaries. Rai’s data provides a science-based view of water quality trends over time and across the watershed. Rai often incorporates local community students, teaching them to collect and analyze water samples and about the importance of watershed health. Funding for analysis of these samples is provided by the Department of Environmental Quality Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program. The Bureau of Land Management and Montana State University Extension Water Quality department also provide support for this program.
ISSUE – Desire to improve water quality and quantity into Freezeout, a 12,000 acre nationally renowned waterfowl production area while improving the farming practices around Freezeout. Improving the water quality in Freezeout will also help improve the water quality of the Teton River. How to match all problems and future direction into compatible solutions?
BACKGROUND – Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) established in 1952 is located approximately 40 miles west of Great Falls, Montana along U.S. Highway 93 between Fairfield and Choteau. The WMA consists of 12,000 acres of shallow lakes and ponds, marsh and grasslands. At maximum water levels, standing water in lakes, ponds, and canals covers about 6,000 acres. Management and maintenance of the WMA is the responsibility of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The WMA is primarily managed to promote waterfowl and upland game-bird production, hunting and viewing. This area is considered to be a key staging area along the Pacific Flyaway during spring and fall migration of water birds. It is estimated that up to a million waterfowl including snow geese and tundra swans utilize the area. Other special species that have been observed include trumpeter swan, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, common loon, American white pelican, white-faced ibis, and ferruginous hawk. Of the 158 bird species that have been observed at the WMA, 67 species including 13 waterfowl and 24 other water-bird species, nest within the area.
Prior to the start of irrigation on surrounding lands, Freezeout Basin contained several shallow, non-discharging lakes that would completely evaporate during dry years. When Greenfields Irrigation District was started, water flow into Freezeout basin both through groundwater seepage, on-farm waste and irrigation canal wasting increased to the point these lakes became permanently flooded. As a result, a drainage canal system from Freezeout to the Teton River was constructed to prevent unacceptable flooding of roads and surrounding agriculture lands.
Since the beginning of Freezeout as a WMA, both water quality and quantity have been issues. The water quality into the Teton River is also an issue for water users in that basin. Sufficient amounts of clean water into Freezeout has become a major concern especially during these ongoing drought years.
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Approximately 42 miles long
Drains approximately 314 square miles (200,000 acres)
Land use:1/3 dry cropland, 1/3 range, and 1/3 irrigated lands
Flows: Original flows were approximately 30 cfs, going dry by late summer.
In 1960s flows in Muddy Creek had reached approximately 600 cfs during irrigation season
Present flows are approximately 250 cfs, primarily return flows from 50,000 acres of Greenfields Irrigation District and irrigation waste.
Erosion: Sediment load from Muddy Creek rated at average of 200,000 tons in 1990s annually that dumped into Sun and Missouri Rivers.
The sediment rate, through multi-stakeholder collaboration of stream work and return flow reduction, now has the sediment load below 28,000 tons annually – an 80% reduction.
Muddy Creek makes up only 17% of Sun River basin but contributes over 80% of sediment load.
Erosion control measures & goals:
Stabilize the stream bed with grade control structures
Stabilize stream banks with bank barbs
Reduce return flows into Muddy Creek
Greenfields Irrigation District, Muddy Creek landowners, and Medicine River Canoe Club; Teton & Cascade Conservation Districts, Bureau of Reclamation, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Department of Environmental Quality,Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Department of Natural Resources & Conservation, and United States Geological Survey including many other state and local government entities, groups and interested parties.
Water Quality Resources
Sun River water quality information is available on the MSEWQ Data Hub.
The Sun River Water Quality Working Group is made up of stakeholders with an interest in water quality in the watershed.
Several reports and analyses are available about Sun River Water Quality.
Data recorded by stream gages inform important decisions and stream conditions. The Sun River Watershed Group and partners use these data to determine where to invest time and money in water conservation, habitat restoration, and water use efficiency. Gage data are invaluable for measuring changes to streamflow to determine if improvement projects or management changes are effective.
Operating and maintaining gages in the Sun River watershed can be costly. However, data provided by gages is critical for informing water managers and users. You can help support SRWG’s stream gages.
The Sun River Watershed Group has improved streamflows by lining ditches or converting them to pipe and by working with water managers and agencies to improve communication. Check back here for more project information coming soon.
This interactive map can be used to view gages, points of diversion, and other features within the Sun River Watershed.
The Sun River Water Management Working Group meets twice per year.
Many reports have been compiled to assess and plan water management in the Sun River watershed.
Fish + Wildlife
The Sun River watershed is a special place for fish and wildlife. From the wilds of the Sun Canyon, to the deer and elk in the Sun River Wildlife Management area, to the fish that need a healthy river and connected streams, managing habitat health is a big endeavor. SRWG works closely with our partners to understand and address the needs of the abundant fish and wildlife that live here.
Each fall, SRWG volunteers and FWP net fish remaining in ditches and convey them back to the river at the end of the irrigation season. Volunteers are needed to help each year. Contact Tracy to join the Fish Rescue Crew.
SRWG projects improve habitat for fish and wildlife. Check back here for more project information coming soon.
Fish + Wildlife Resources
Each year, FWP surveys fish populations at several locations in the watershed. These surveys help biologists understand fish health, population distribution, and other factors that inform fish management. SRWG can use this information to guide habitat improvement projects.
The Sun River Watershed, like most of Montana, has experienced a steady increase of noxious weed infestation, particularly spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), and houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale). While some areas of Montana have suffered tremendous economic and habitat loss due to noxious weeds, proactive management of noxious weeds in the Sun River Watershed is still cost-effective and physically manageable in most areas. However, chronic weed problems exist along riparian corridors, roadways and access points to public lands. In an ever-growing number of cases, weeds are spreading from stream corridors to adjacent private and public lands. Both formal and informal weed management initiatives in the Sun River Watershed will continue to center around drainages, as landowners tend to organize themselves this way. Additionally, drainages are a conduit for the spread of seeds and control methods are more complex in riparian areas because chemical and vehicle use is more restricted. Fighting weeds in these corridors require a lot of labor and creativity to be successful. Sun River Watershed Group partners have substantially increased weed management on irrigated lands. Finally, by expanding weed management areas by subdrainage, we expect to improve cooperative efforts across a broad area of the Sun River Watershed. The areas that are included in these active efforts are the:
- Sun River Valley Ditch Company
- Fort Shaw Irrigation District
- Greenfields Irrigation District
- Fairfield Bench area
- Broken O Ranch area
- Upper Sun River tributaries
- Sun Canyon
Each summer, the Sun River Watershed Group hosts our Weed Whacker Rodeo. Volunteers spend the morning pulling weeds, followed by a BBQ lunch, awards, and door prizes.
SRWG also partners with the US Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Front Range Round Table, and other partners each year to host several other weed pulls and weed spray days.
SRWG Annual Weed Pull
For over 20 years, the Sun River Watershed Group has organized a weed pull, known as the Weed Wacker Rodeo. Volunteers pull hundreds of pounds of weeds, enjoy lunch, win prizes, and spend the day enjoying the Sun River Watershed. This event is held on the second Saturday of July.
In 2019, 24 volunteers pulled nearly 250 pounds of knapweed in just a few hours. Thanks to local community businesses, SRWG was able to provide a BBQ, refreshments, and prizes for all participants. Thanks to everyone who came out to help and we’ll see YOU next year!
Partner Weed Events
The Sun River Watershed Group partners with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Ranger Districts of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest to host a series of local spray days. These events, held annually in the spring and fall, match local landowners with the resources to address weeds in their area. By working together, we help make a difference on both public and private lands. Contact Jim Spinder for information about this year’s events.
SRWG also helps support weed pulls organized by the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable. Find out more about RMFWR and their events at www.rmfweedroundtable.org.
Outreach + Education
EVENTS AND VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
The Sun River Watershed Group hosts and participates in events to help the public learn about our organization and our watershed. These range from project tours to workshops to outreach tables at community events.
SRWG’s annual, seasonal water monitoring program is entirely volunteer-led and often presents opportunities for students to participate in data collection and even to conduct their own research.
SRWG coordinates working groups, which are focused groups of Sun River stakeholders that meet once or twice a year to discuss watershed issues and find strategies to solve problems.
Each year from April through November, Rai Hahn collects water quality data at several locations in the watershed. Rai often recruits volunteers from the community and local classrooms to participate in data collection.
Each fall, volunteers are needed at the end of the irrigation season to assist the Fish Rescue Crew.
There are several weed pulls and sprays in the Upper Sun River watershed each year, organized by SRWG and our project partners.
SRWG relies on our board members and community volunteers to help at outreach and fundraising events from baseball games to our annual meeting and 25th anniversary.