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Conversations with Water

If you were a water droplet falling from the sky in an afternoon rainstorm, where would
you go? You may fall through a canopy of Lodgepole Pines, to seep into the soil and eventually
weave your way through the pores of the ground into a small creek. Pass through the gills of a
Cutthroat Trout to then feed into a secondary stream, then a tertiary, and then maybe into the
Gallatin River. Passed house rock and into the ditch of an irrigator to feed a field of wheat that
we see waving in the winds of our watershed.

A watershed is an area of land that channels or ‘sheds’ water to one main drainage area.
Watersheds can vary in size and like Russian nesting dolls, can be found nestled within one
another. Small tributary streams that may flow into the Gallatin River have their own watershed.
The Gallatin, the Maddison, and the Jefferson rivers all have their own watersheds as well.
When they join to form the Missouri River, the Missouri River has its own watershed which
encompasses the watersheds of those rivers that feed it. Which then travels into the Mississippi
which, well I think you can see where I am going with this.

Water is a finite resource with only so much to go around. It continuously cycles
throughout our earth on a global scale within infinite watersheds, ringed inside one another. In
each watershed, water may take a different path but acts in similar ways. This past summer I
have been fortunate enough to work along Bear Creek here in Gallatin County. The curves of
each bend on the creek wrap around the land as the land wraps around it. Each shaping one
another through endless conversations. You sprinkle in some riparian areas full of willows,
chokecherries, clusters of aspen, dogwood, and buffalo silverberry, and you have a whole
community. The land creeps slowly upwards and out into foothills scattered with wandering
rocky mountain juniper and sturdy sagebrush. Native plants with roots deeper than us humans
stand tall, grow down into the depths of the earth beneath us. Holding soils in place, making
wee tunnels for microbes to persist in underground economies, and forming an ecosystem.

But some bends on Bear Creek lack those roots that help hold the soil in place. Allowing
the power of water to effortlessly take soil, inch by inch, foot by foot, depleting one’s banks
steadily over time. Some of the lands surrounding Bear Creek have been freshly cut and
bundled up in bales of hay, ready to be stored and munched on by livestock over the long
months when grass is dormant. My hope for these steep banks is to help stabilize the erosion
by planting native trees and bushes to stimulate root growth. Letting the many fingered root
systems grab hold of the soil in an arm wrestle with the water. Facilitating a more even fight in
keeping soil where it is rather than watching it wash away downstream.

It is not just Bear Creek that is having these conversations, it water bodies across
watersheds of all scales. Just as water and land continuously talk with one another, sometimes
pleasantly and sometimes argumentatively, so do plants and water, so do people and water.

Throughout Montana, each county has a varying amount of land that is used for agricultural
production. In Lincoln county, a mere 2% of land is used for agriculture, compared to Big Horn
County where 100% of the land is used for agriculture. Us humans here in Gallatin County have
created 2,000 miles of ditches and canals over generations in order to water the 42% of land
that is used for agricultural production.

When settlers arrived here in the Gallatin Valley around 1860 much of the land was dry.
But with such rich soils, people started to talk and work alongside their neighbors with shovels
and mules to create irrigation systems to grow abundant crops. These same canals built
decades ago after the Homestead Act are still in use today to irrigate the fields which produce
the food we consume. These canals and ditches have been maintained by water rights holders
through collaborative efforts using their own tools, funds, and time.

We must continue to have these conversations to maintain good relationships with our
neighbors and the water that flows in finite amounts through our watersheds. We have been
doing it for centuries and we will continue to do it for years to come. If you ever need help
mitigating a conversation with water stop by the Gallatin Conservation District office and we can
be a part of that process alongside you. Next time you’re out and about and happen to pass by
some flowing water, maybe start a conversation by saying hello, think about where it’s been and
where it’s going.

Bea McNamara | Big Sky Watershed Corps Member

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