Blackfoot River Fund Update: Local Ranchers Benefit from Montana Trout Unlimited Efforts

The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited is back at it again — using the Blackfoot River Fund to insure that water from the majestic river is properly utilized in the most sustainable way.

In their most recent project, BBCTU helped local ranch owners, Gary and Sharon Jacobsen, streamline (pun intended) their irrigation system, so that it will leave more clean water in the river, which is great for natural habitat and more efficient for the rancher’s efforts.

BBCTU Manager, Ryen Neudecker, has given us an in-depth look at their recent work. You can read the update below:

Blackfoot River Fund Puts More Clean, Cold Water in the North Fork of the Blackfoot

The North Fork Blackfoot River is an iconic Montana River. Flowing through the heart of the Blackfoot Watershed, the North Fork is a stronghold for native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout owing to its crystal clear and ice-cold waters. Those waters flow over a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of colorful river rock.

This river is not only important to trout, it is also very important to the landowners living nearby, many of whom are sixth generation ranch families in the valley. Gary and Sharon Jacobsen own a ranch on the North Fork, and over the past 20 years, the Blackfoot Restoration team has been lucky to work with them on a variety of conservation projects including stream restoration, grazing management and a conservation easement. In addition to their North Fork Blackfoot frontage, they also have two spring creeks flowing through their ranch. Thanks to their leadership and vision, we’ve restored both of them—a total of over 25,000 feet of improved habitat. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar visited these sites in 2011 because they are such great examples of successful public-private partnership in restoration.

The Jacobsen family has a water right out of the North Fork for nine cubic feet per second (4,039 gallons per minute) of water to irrigate a beautiful hay meadow. This water is critical to their operation, but the setup to irrigate hasn’t always been efficient. The irrigation canal delivering the water to the meadow is over two miles long and very porous– as much as 90% of the water diverted can leak out of the canal before reaching the meadow.

Gary and Sharon knew there had to be a better way to irrigate. Working with them, BBCTU explored several options including piping the water, lining the irrigation canal, and most recently, switching their point of diversion to a spring creek closer to their meadow, and eliminating the need to divert out of the North Fork at all. This option would provide a reliable source of water and allow them to switch from an inefficient ditch and flood-irrigation system to a sprinkler fed by a pump out of the spring creek.

By making this switch, the Jacobsens have been able to eliminate weeks of annual maintenance needed to keep the ditch flowing. By pumping only two cubic feet per second (cfs) (898 gallons per minute (gpm)) from the spring creek, they are saving seven cfs (3,142 gpm) of water, all of which stays in the North fork.

That water remaining in the North Fork is especially critical in the late summer and early fall, when bull trout migrate back to the Blackfoot River after spawning.

And what does this mean for the Jacobsen’s nine cfs water right? Under Montana law, they can lease the water left in the North Fork for instream flows to Trout Unlimited. So, part of their water right remains in irrigation and the water remaining in the North Fork is protected through the lease. This project is a win-win for many reasons and a great example of the collaborative efforts that have been underway in the Blackfoot valley for over 30 years.

This project could not have happened without Gary & Sharon Jacobsen, Western Water Project, USFWS Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, BBCTU, Montana Trout Unlimited and the Blackfoot River Fund through Logjam Presents.

— Written by Ryen Neudecker