Dry Creek Collaborative Restoration Project: Connecting People and Fisheries to Improve Ecosystem Resilience

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(May 2019) Written by Kelsie Dougherty, GGWC Education & Outreach Committee Volunteer – A few years ago I had the privilege of working with Greater Gallatin Watershed Council as a Stream Team volunteer on the East Gallatin River supporting local water quality monitoring efforts. That experience enhanced my connection to this place in a way that goes beyond community, I felt like I was making a meaningful impact and contributing to something bigger than my backyard stream.

Fast forward several years and I am again volunteering with GGWC to plant native willows on a portion of Dry Creek, a tributary to the East Gallatin River north of Belgrade. Dry Creek has been on the Department of Environmental Quality’s List of Impaired Waters since 1992 because of its high sediment load associated with channel realignment, reduced riparian vegetation, and land use practices. In order to meet state water quality standards, the DEQ declared that Dry Creek needed a 31% reduction in sediment loading from the eroding streambanks. This willow planting project will help stabilize the banks of a recently restored section of the stream, and it’s just one step of the project. Lucky for us, it was a clear sunny day amidst weeks of variable spring weather and we were all in good spirits, ready to get dirty and have some fun.

Our day began with an overview of the project from partners at Trout Unlimited and then we headed out to the site to get muddy. Jeff Dunn, the TU Upper Missouri Project Manager, explained that planting willows is an effective way to rejuvenate riparian habitat and stabilize banks. As the root system of the willows establish multiple feet underground and into the groundwater table, it provides a network of stability for the soil and improves the stream’s ability to withstand future flood events. The riparian buffer created from these willows will absorb pollutants, keeping them out of the streams and ultimately improving water quality. Resilient creeks are better for both fish and people.

Dry Creek drains the west slope of Bridger Range and the Horseshoe Hills before flowing into the East Gallatin River, a major tributary of the Gallatin River. It is an important cold-water refuge for native trout during the warm summer months when the East Gallatin is at risk of seasonal low-flows and temperature spikes. Historically, ditch building and cattle grazing have created a wide and shallow stream that has heavily impacted the ecological function of the creek. Shallow water warms in the summer sun and trout need access to cool waters in order to thrive. Without fencing to protect vulnerable riparian areas, banks get trampled and sediment can pollute the water, creating an uninviting habitat for trout eggs.

Using a water jet stinger to bore holes into the creek banks, several groups of volunteers planted over a thousand willow cuttings along a mile-long reach of streambank in a pattern that will allow wildlife access to the stream as the vegetation takes hold. Establishment of this vegetative cover will ensure that this tributary remains a sanctuary for cold water fish by lowering stream temperatures, reducing erosion, and creating habitat. This project is getting us one step closer toward meeting the goals listed in the Lower Gallatin Watershed Restoration Plan and delisting Dry Creek as an impaired waterbody. Volunteering on watershed projects in the community that effect meaningful change is such a rewarding experience, not to mention the people who come out to help are also a great crowd. Watersheds connect communities and volunteering connects people and improves community resilience.