Decades of restoration are accumulating to keep a key tributary to Montana’s Blackfoot River functioning for ranchers and native trout.
Ryen Neudecker of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited looks at bank erosion on Nevada Creek, an important tributary to Montana’s Blackfoot River.
On a late August morning, Ryen Neudecker and Brent Mannix watch water drip out of a seep above a lazy section of Nevada Creek. The creek’s waters are languid as it runs underneath a thick canopy of alder and willow—flows are always low this time of year—and the trickle of water provides a pleasant backdrop for Neudecker and Mannix’s conversation.
It would be more pleasant if the water from the seep weren’t coming from the Douglas Canal, which just so happens to be the main source of irrigation water for the ranchers along Nevada Creek. Here, the canal is sandwiched between a county road and, more recently, the creek. Over the last few years, Nevada Creek has pushed closer and closer to the base of the canal, threatening to erode into the 20-foot slope of earth keeping the canal’s water traveling on its path to the 6,000 acres of irrigated hay meadows of Montana’s Helmville Valley.
Peering up at the top of the bank separating the canal from the creek, Mannix, the president of the Nevada Creek Water Users Association, points out why he’s not the only rancher who is losing sleep over this stretch of water.
“If you go to crawl down [from the top of the canal bank], you’d mostly just fall down and hope you catch yourself before you hit the creek,” he said. “It’s really steep. I can’t believe it’s lasted this long.”
Left: Neudecker and Brent Mannix of the Nevada Creek Water Users Association examine the bank that forms the barrier between Nevada Creek and the Douglas Canal. As the creek has eroded into this bank over the years, the hillside has steepened and sluffed away, thinning the barrier of earth that keeps the Helmville Valley’s irrigation water flowing. Right: The Douglas Canal is the major source of irrigation water to agriculture in the Helmville Valley.
The creek’s creep up on the canal happened slowly at first, but now is becoming a major concern for the Nevada Creek Water Users Association, which noticed the growing issue in late 2021.
“I just look at this and see a major wreck coming,” Mannix said. “If this washed out, it would really hurt all the people who own land because they couldn’t irrigate it, it would put a whole lot of sediment in the creek. And to put the canal back, if the creek were still here, seems almost impossible.”
That’s why Neudecker and Mannix are standing here talking in the shrubby shade of a hot August day. Neudecker, the project coordinator for the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (BBCTU), is here to check in on a stream and riparian restoration project on this section of Nevada Creek. The project will both protect the Douglas Canal and continue work that Neudecker and a suite of partners have done over the years to restore Nevada Creek as tributary habitat for native trout, including endangered bull trout.
“With this project, we can protect the canal, we can restore Nevada Creek, and we can bring the stream flows back up and restore the floodplain,” Neudecker said. “You don’t even have to care about fish to be supportive of this work.”