Kelly Williamson saw what happened in her native California when too much of the state's groundwater was sucked away because it wasn't being managed.

That's one of the reasons the environmental studies major at the University of Montana joined about a half-dozen people who spent their Sunday learning about the Lolo Watershed Study, which is part of a pilot research partnership between the Montana Natural Resources and Conservation Service and the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

The Lolo Watershed Group nominated the lower Lolo Creek area as a place for the bureau's Ground Water Investigation Program to begin examining the flow of the stream as well as the groundwater underneath.

Landowners near Lolo Creek make anecdotal references to the creek channel drying out more often over the past 20 years. But there is not much data to reference in terms of when the creek dries out and why. 

The study hopes to identify potential causes of water shortages and provide tools for science-based water management. 

There are now nine stream gauges spaced throughout the Lolo Watershed collecting water depth and stream flow. There are also five nearby wells where groundwater is being monitored.

Carmen Carstarphen, a hydrologist with the bureau's ground water project, showed the group of interested Lolo residents a graph showing the association between ground water and surface water. 

The graphs showed almost identical data points, possible evidence that as streams above ground dry up, groundwater does as well.

So many factors contribute to less water in an area, said Rick Potts, acting Lolo Watershed Group coordinator. The timing of the rainy season, agricultural irrigation and how much water gets consumed by the city can all change how the water is drained and replenished. 

A former firefighter, Potts remembers a time when there would be a fire-season-ending event near the second or third week of September. Either rain or snow would fall and put out many of the fires. 

In the 1980s, those types of events started to disappear, Potts said. Communities need to start examining their water resources while there is still time to make changes, he said. 

"Californians have few options left and are in a world of hurt," Potts said.

This is why the study is being done, said Kascie Herron, the watershed group's secretary and treasurer. Once the community understands their local watershed, they can make more informed choices about how the water should be used, which may lead to more water conservation, Herron said.

In an effort for the community to better understand how the research is collected, the collaborative invited local members of the Lolo community and Missoula to look at the stream gauges and be educated on how water-resource studies are done.

Richard Stocker, who lives in Lolo, said he knew very little about the project before joining the field trip, beyond the fact that the groups were collecting data. 

"I guess that's what I'm going to find out," Stocker said.

The project in Lolo is part of a larger effort by the federal conservation service, which has installed stream gauges across the state in order to collect real-time stream flow data and provide a place for the information to be mapped and accessed. This information can be used by water commissioners, water-right holders, reservoir operators, irrigation districts, recreationalists, and state and federal agencies.

"Our purpose is to provide information so water resources can be managed, not just used," the Bureau wrote in one of their educational pamphlets.

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