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.