HAMILTON – The folks operating the Bitterroot Valley’s Daly Ditches Irrigation District are hoping for a miraculous rain to extend the irrigation season for nearly 1,900 users who need the water to keep their hay growing and lawns green.
Barring that, they’d take a widespread cooperative effort to conserve the dwindling supply leaking out of the Sapphire Mountains into Skalkaho Creek.
“It’s never been this low in the past 20 years,” said Dennis Moore, a board member of the ditch company. “We’re at a 40 percent reduction of average right now.”
After this year’s snowpack disappeared early and a long stretch of bone-dry days, Bitterroot Valley irrigators and fishermen are feeling the pinch of too little water.
Moore said that without some serious water conservation measures, those irrigators dependent on Skalkaho Creek could see their ditches run dry by the first week of August.
If everyone cooperates, Moore said they might be able to keep water in the ditches all the way to the end of August.
Like many of the irrigation companies in the Bitterroot, the biggest management challenge comes from the smallest users who use the water to keep their lawns green in the subdivisions that were once farmland.
Moore guessed there are somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 smaller places that use the water to sprinkle their lawns.
“Many grossly over-sprinkle their lawns and grossly overuse their water allotments,” he said.
The Daly Ditches website at www.dalyditches.com has tips on water conservation.
“The amount of water you can save from one acre might not seem like a lot, but if you put all those acres together, it can make a lot of difference,” said board member Tim Muechel.
For people trying to make a living from the land, every extra drop is important.
“Even though people may have the right to use the water for their lawns, we hope they will remember there are those who need to grow hay to feed their cattle, which they sell to feed their families,” Moore said. “A little cooperation from those not in agriculture and a little compassion this year would be helpful.”
With the luxury of water banked at Lake Como, the Bitter Root Irrigation District is hoping to stretch its water supply to the first week of September.
“That could change depending on what happens with the weather,” said district manager John Crowley.
In the past few years, the irrigation district has been able to provide water a few weeks into September, which Crowley said is valuable for everyone involved in agriculture.
“Any time you can get deeper into September, it really helps out folks with orchards,” he said. “Right now, under these conditions, getting to Sept. 2 is a good season for us.”
A relative cool snap in June helped in the district’s efforts to fill Lake Como this year.
“We were able to get Lake Como to the point where it spilled,” Crowley said. “We worked our tails off to make that happen. Right now, it looks like we’ll have a normal irrigation season.”
A long stretch of overly hot days could change those plans.
“We get a lot of evaporation on the big ditch,” Crowley said. “When you get nine consecutive days of 90-plus degrees, it doesn’t help when you are trying to push water around the valley.
“The hot weather really takes its toll on everyone,” he said. “The water just doesn’t go as far. We’re hoping for some rain. That would help everyone out.”
Irrigators aren’t alone in hoping for a change in this summer’s weather pattern.
Anglers hoping to wet a line in the main stem of the Bitterroot River are now limited to the earliest part of the day.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks instituted “hoot owl” hours on the river last Thursday in an effort to protect fish from the stress of low water and high temperatures. Anglers are prohibited from fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight on the entire length of the river, excluding the east and west forks.
FWP fisheries biologist Chris Clancy said the decision came after water temperatures hit 74 degrees regularly near Lolo and only a degree cooler at Hamilton.
The state starts considering implementing hoot owl hours whenever water temperatures rise to 73 degrees on three consecutive days.
To make the decision even easier, Clancy said the warm water temperatures were earlier than usual.
“The last week of July and first week of August are typically the warmest time of the year for water temperatures,” Clancy said. “Seeing these kinds of temperatures this early is unusual.”
The upper portion of the river is typically a bit cooler, but Clancy said the decision was made to close the entire main stem to protect sensitive cutthroat populations.
Over the past two years, Clancy has floated the lower West Fork and upper main stem in the later part of the summer to document mortality along that reach.
More than 70 percent of the dead fish he collected in those five trips were cutthroat. That fact was disconcerting since cutthroat only constitute about a quarter of the trout population in that portion of the river.
“I’m assuming these were release mortalities,” Clancy said. “Cutthroats are easier to catch. They see a fly in the water and they just can’t help themselves.”
Most of the dead trout were found below the confluence of the east and west forks where water temperatures jumped by at least 5 degrees. The West Fork tends to be cooler because it is being fed by water drawn from the bottom of Painted Rocks Reservoir.
“It comes out of the dam at 45 degrees, but it warms significantly as it goes downstream,” Clancy said. “By the time it gets to Conner, it’s already 60 degrees. The difference between the east and west forks is about 5 degrees when they come together.”
Clancy said the state sought to avoid adding additional fishing pressure to the upper reaches of the main stem of the Bitterroot River when the decision was made to close the entire length of the river.
“In years like this, I suggest to people that they get up early and go upstream when they want to fish,” he said. “The creeks on the forest are still pretty cold and fishing is good.”
Clancy said FWP is already dipping into the 15,000 acre feet of water it has stored in Painted Rocks Reservoir to supplement instream flows in the Bitterroot River.
“People need to know that 15,000 acre feet is not a lot of water in a year like this,” Clancy said.