A new partnership is helping meet the needs of both irrigators and anglers in western Montana on Skalkaho Creek, a tributary that enters the Bitterroot River near the town of Hamilton.
Scenic beauty is one of the area’s assets; others are good rainbow and cutthroat trout fishing and a growing economy and population.
On a nearly nine-mile stretch of Skalkaho Creek, large irrigation canals draw water out of the creek for local use. Summer flows in these canals are commonly higher than in the creek. Meanwhile, anglers lose out on the fish that inadvertently move into the irrigation canals. The canals are also barriers to fish that might otherwise naturally migrate upstream to spawn.
Now a new project will help keep 20-30 percent more native and sport fish in Skalkaho Creek and deliver them to anglers on the Bitterroot River, while offering the Daly Ditches Irrigation District technological and time-saving alternatives to water management.
The project is funded by the federal Fish Restoration Irrigation Mitigation Act, and matching funds from the Montana Future Fisheries Improvement Program. FRIMA funds can be used to reconnect native fish habitat and increase fish survival, and are, by law, only available for use west of the Continental Divide.
“This project, which would be beyond our means without federal assistance, will bring significant improvements to one of the most outstanding river valleys in the state,” said Mark Lere, fisheries habitat restoration officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Installed to date are three fish screens to protect fish from following creek water into the irrigation canals, and a remote-controlled headgate. Later in the project, two irrigation siphons will be installed under the creek to replace large canals that today intersect it. Separating creek water from irrigation water at these two points will keep fish from getting into the canals.
Barry Persson, manager of Daly Ditches Irrigation District, says the project is good for all water users in the valley.
“We are able to be good stewards and good neighbors, while gaining efficiency in our operations and developing valuable relationships with agencies like FWP and local anglers,” Persson said.
Persson said ditch riders, once skeptical, are now enthusiastic about the headgate on the Hi-Line Ditch that self-adjusts with the creek’s flow and that can be reset to a new level by computer from his office.
Chris Clancy, FWP fisheries biologist on the project said it is like putting pieces of a puzzle back together.
“We’re helping the natural system function more as it was intended to and using technology to do that,” Clancy said. “That’s why this is an exciting partnership for everyone.”
Applications for the next FRIMA funding cycle are due Sept. 1, 2004. Additional information on FRIMA is available from the FWP web site at www.fwp.state.mt.us under Habitat.