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The Gallatin Watershed: a Story of Stewardship and Collaboration

Tour attendees view a restored area along Dry Creek in the Gallatin Watershed.

This post was written by Big Sky Watershed Corps member Zane Ashford as a part of a series reviewing the stops along the 2019 Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour. Zane shares more about the Gallatin Watershed and two watershed groups working to conserve water resources there. The Gallatin River Task Force gave a presentation about their group during part of the tour, and the Gallatin Watershed Council had a chance to show off a restoration project along Dry Creek. 

The Gallatin Watershed Council (GWC) and the Gallatin River Task Force (GRTF) are working toward preserving the water resources of the Gallatin Watershed through collaborative action, conservation, and restoration. The two organizations, representing the communities of the Lower and Upper Gallatin Watersheds, respectively, engage with dozens of other watershed partners on projects ranging from stream restoration to education and community outreach. During the Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour, GWC and GRTF partners shared their histories, current projects, and future aspirations.

The Gallatin Watershed originates high on the Yellowstone Plateau in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. The Gallatin River flows north out of Wyoming, trenching a canyon between the Gallatin and Madison Mountain Ranges before braiding its way through the Gallatin Valley of Southwest Montana. The Gallatin then joins the Madison and Jefferson Rivers near Three Forks, MT, to form the Missouri River, the longest river in North America. From mountain peaks, to lush valley bottoms, and arid sagebrush grasslands in between, the Gallatin Watershed spans 1.2 million acres and is home to 23 major water bodies.

The Upper Gallatin Watershed extends from the headwaters of the Gallatin to the mouth of Gallatin Canyon, approximately at the confluence of Spanish Creek. GRTF, Big Sky’s local watershed group, formed in 2004 with one simple ambition: to make sure the Gallatin River flows with clean, cold, abundant water. 

GRTF Executive Director Kristin Gardner tells attendees about the work the Task Force does in Big Sky. Gardner gave a presentation as the tour stopped for lunch between stops in the Ruby and Madison Valleys.

In collaboration with the US Forest Service, GRTF began its River Access Project by restoring Moose Creek Flats Campground, a popular recreational and fishing access site in Gallatin Canyon. GRTF restored 723 feet of streambanks, reconnected 8,000 square feet of floodplain, developed recreational trails and a boat ramp, and installed three educational signs. These kinds of projects are instrumental in protecting the Gallatin River’s resources while also providing the community with recreation access. GRTF is also working on the Big Sky Sustainable Water Stewardship Plan to address ecological health, water supply, and wastewater treatment/reuse. Additionally, they’ve been working on the Upper Gallatin Nutrient and Algae Assessment. Under a contract with MTDEQ, GRTF is monitoring total suspended solids, nutrients, algae, and hardness for two years to investigate the causes of algal blooms.

Moving downstream, the Lower Gallatin Watershed originates at the Spanish Creek confluence, encompassing nearly 1,000 square miles in Gallatin Valley. The Gallatin Watershed Council (GWC), works with local volunteers, landowners, and community partners to bring water quality monitoring, stream restoration, and watershed education to the Gallatin Valley with the goal of improving water quality for all. GWC authored the Lower Gallatin Watershed Restoration Plan in 2014, addressing concerns on the Lower Gallatin’s 15 impaired streams and the need for community outreach. This past summer, GWC launched its Gallatin Watershed Stewards Program, intended to bring the community together to engage in water stewardship. Through active engagement in volunteer events like cleanups or weed pulls, workshops about water conservation, and even planting waterwise gardens, the community at-large can make a difference in preservation of the Gallatin’s water resources.

GWC is also an integral part of restoration work happening across the Gallatin Valley. In collaboration with Trout Unlimited, private landowners, and a private consultant, GWC helped restore 1.83 miles of streambank on Dry Creek, a tributary that’s been listed as impaired for sediment and nutrients since 1992 due to impacts from channelization to make room for transportation and agriculture. Dry Creek required an over 50% reduction in sediment loading in order to meet water quality standards. By stabilizing the streambanks and enhancing the riparian buffer on nearly 2 miles of Dry Creek, the tributary is on its way toward meeting water quality standards and is now able to support healthy fish populations with implementation of a fish bypass. This project demonstrates the importance of the Watershed Approach and was featured on the Missouri Headwaters Watershed Tour. 

To be a part of the movement to keep our waterways cold, clean, and clear, get involved with GWC and GRTF.