Freshwater Conservation

Protecting clean, cold and ample water for nature and people.

A small stream surrounded by grasses with evergreen trees in the distance.
High Divide Headwaters Freshwater conservation in the High Divide Headwaters © Nathan Korb

Water Is Our Most Precious Resource

Water is the key to life, and right now Montana is at a critical juncture. Nature and people both depend on free-flowing, clean water to survive, and at this moment, the water we depend on needs our help.

Here and across the country, the demand for fresh water is exceeding the supply. Climate change and unprecedented drought are already causing detrimental impacts to our critical water resources and the wildlife and human communities that depend on them. With the additional stress of earlier snowmelt and unpredictable rain patterns, water is growing more and more scarce.

Free-flowing streams of cold, clean water are essential to our communities, providing drought and flood resilience, and are critical aquatic and wetland habitats vital to fish, wildlife and their migration corridors.

What Is a Watershed It’s basic to understanding how we get our water.

Conserving Water with Science and Partnerships

Whether you get your water from municipal suppliers, your own well, or pump it directly from a river or creek, we are all in the same boat. Our creeks, rivers, and groundwater are all connected and rely on the same rain and snow we get throughout the year. We all share the same water and we’re demanding a lot more than our existing systems may be able to supply. 

The warmer spring temperatures, brought on by climate change, mean that Montana is losing the huge amounts of our water stored as snow. Hotter, longer summers mean greater demands for water by people and nature and frequent, longer droughts are making it even more difficult to meet human demands while maintaining health rivers. The Nature Conservancy is restoring aquatic systems so they can better adapt to climate change and working with diverse interests across the state to find meaningful solutions to the water shortages we are experiencing.

Restoring the Ruby River The Nature Conservancy is restoring a stretch of the Ruby River in Montana with the help of dedicated volunteers

TNC and our partners are helping restore and maintain natural flows to Montana streams using science-based, on-the-ground work, including:

  • Restoring streams, floodplains, and wetlands in the face of climate change
  • Replanting streamside vegetation and changing livestock management so streams are shaded by trees and banks maintain cool, clean water
  • Upgrading culverts and bridges to improve stream health and ability of fish and other animals to move along streams (connectivity)
  • Improving irrigation systems to manage water more carefully
  • Removing water-loving conifers such as firs and junipers that are encroaching on wetlands to improve stream flows
Aerial view in 2021 of beaver mimicry structures the Conservancy built in 2016 on Long Creek, Montana.
Aerial view in 2016 of beaver mimicry structures the Conservancy built on Long Creek, Montana.
Beavers are back! The beaver mimicry structures we built in 2016 have been recolonized and expanded by beavers. Look at how the wetlands and flows have improved between 2016 and 2021, full and green even in late August. © © TNC

Through rigorous testing and positive, productive partnerships, we are expanding the reach of our freshwater strategies, evaluating their viability for success in other whole systems in Montana.

Brunette woman in sunglasses in front of a garden.
Ann Schwend Water resource planner for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Ann Schwend. © Ann Schwend

Water Planner with Montana's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation

Interview with Ann Schwend

Water is arguably the most critical issue confronting us in the face of climate change. And we are looking at some difficult challenges. Will there be enough water, and will it be available when and where we need it most? How can we equitably share water with a growing number of users? How will we pay for the restoration needed to protect this vital resource? And, ultimately, how do Montanans collectively invest in overcoming these challenges across the state?

One person who has spent many years thinking about these questions is Ann Schwend, water resource planner for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. We asked her a few questions of our own.

What do you think are the major challenges to ensuring there is enough water to meet the needs of people and nature?

Montana is mostly a headwaters state, meaning we are not entirely dependent on water delivery from other states but on the precipitation that falls within our borders. Climate change is creating great uncertainty in the amount and timing of our annual water delivery.  At the same time, increased temperatures mean earlier snowmelt and longer growing seasons.  In some areas we may see additional precipitation, which could exacerbate flooding issues, while in other areas we will likely experience more intense droughts and drier streams, especially during the longer, hotter summers.  Many basins, such as the rapidly developing Missouri Headwaters region, are closed to new surface water appropriations, which means that current water allocations already exceed the amount we receive in annual precipitation.  Land use changes, such as converting irrigated fields to housing developments, can have a profound effect on the hydrology of the system.  As more people move to Montana, demands increase, while the timing and availability of supply is changing. Thus, the uncertainty of changing precipitation patterns, higher temperatures, longer growing seasons and increased demands are creating water management challenges that make it difficult to meet the continually expanding water needs of people and nature.  

There are dozens of groups, public and private, focused on water. What role do you see the state playing?

Being such a large state, Montana is fortunate to have a network of community-based organizations that are focusing on water resource issues in their watersheds. We have over 60 locally based non-profit watershed groups and 58 Conservation Districts scattered across the state.  Each of these groups provide a direct connection to their communities and have the local wisdom about their unique water challenges. They have built the respect and relationships with stakeholders that can provide the knowledge and leadership to successfully implement community focused projects. These coordinators are great team members to help the state meet our goals, through empowering local decisions and control.  However, most of them are primarily non-profit organizations working in rural communities and dedicated funding, especially for project planning and development, is difficult to find. The state can provide the broad framework and vision at the 30,000’ level but needs to invest in providing financial support and technical assistance to these coordinators.  In turn, the coordinators can leverage these resources and dedicate their time to help communities understand the issues and build home grown solutions.  In weaving a network of well supported local leaders we can be much more effective and efficient at managing our water resources over such a large and diverse landscape.

What is the role of private organizations?

Community-based conservation organizations can build powerful place-based public private partnerships that provide the glue among diverse interests and leverage a variety of resources.  Water issues are never simple, and they require creative approaches to consider multiple objectives. If we try to direct solutions from outside of the community, there is less buy in and long-term sustainability.  However, if we have an independent organization that is committed to incorporating multiple perspectives based on community needs, across a spectrum of mutual objectives, we can create much more successful, sustainable results. It can also build a local sense of pride in their community and accomplishments.  

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about water in Montana – or what would you like every Montanan to understand about how they get water?

Water is complicated.  Just when you begin to think you understand the water cycle, or the connections between ground and surface waters, or how land use impacts the way water moves through the watershed, or the importance of stream flow for fisheries and habitat, then you throw in water rights law based on a system developed during the homestead era.  

If we think of our water supply in the same way that we manage an annual family budget: we have limited funds, with competing uses and we aren’t exactly sure when or where the money will arrive. We are socking money away in the winter (snowpack), and we might get a stimulus check in the spring (runoff), and perhaps a little mad cash (rain) in May and June but things start to get tight in July, August, September and maybe October (family holdback time).  Oh, and by the way we are having company for most of the summer so will have more mouths to feed (landscaping & irrigation). We need to find ways to invest and create savings accounts to budget through the long hot summer months.  And no, it is not okay to dig into the trust fund (groundwater) as we are living on the interest from that account to feed our other accounts. It is one big, interconnected water budget that we all must share, and we aren’t getting a raise.  We must learn to make do with what we have and find ways to consume less. We aren’t making new water.

What can each of us do to ensure we all have enough water for all our needs?

Our rivers and streams that support fish, wildlife, and recreation and supply our drinking water are fed by annual precipitation and supplemented by groundwater. When we withdraw groundwater, we are simply stealing from our savings account, and need to make deposits back into the system.  We can accomplish this by slowing the water down as it moves through our watersheds and capturing some of the rain and snowmelt before it flows down river.  Functioning floodplains, side channels and wetlands are very effective at reducing the impacts of floods, but also at saturating the sponge to slowly replenish the shallow aquifers.  If we build near rivers and disconnect them from their floodplains, we are breaking an important part of the cycle, increasing the flooding impacts downstream and robbing the system of the ability to recharge itself.  I would hope that everyone understands the interconnectedness and how important it is to consider the system holistically. And finally, water is one of our most precious resources and we must learn to live within our means.

Water Conservation Using leading-edge science to change land management practices, increase aquifer storage, and improve late-season flows.

Adapting to a Changing Climate

In the Rocky Mountain West, late summer stream flows are critical to fish, wildlife, and people. These waters replenish wetlands, irrigate fields, create habitat for a variety of species, and provide communities with drinking water.

What happens when changes in the climate cause these flows to disappear?

Unfortunately, we know this is already happening. Farmers, ranchers, biologists, and others are seeing the changes that scientists are measuring in our climate patterns. Mountain snowpack is a critical source for year-round water. But decreased snowpack and earlier spring melt, along with drought, are leaving some streams dry by late summer.

In a region where water is already limited, local groups of stakeholders committed to solutions have been focused on the conservation of streams and rivers for decades. Yet the work hasn’t always considered whether a stream can buffer the effects of climate change.

Conservancy Science Leading the Charge

To aid in conservation planning, The Nature Conservancy is partnering with local universities to develop a watershed-based approach – one that includes all the land and water that drains into the same place, the watershed (watch a video). The project locates watersheds that hold the most snow longest into the summer. We’ve tested our predictions across 30 watersheds in the High Divide Headwaters. The results are helping us hone the science to assess watershed resilience* in the face of climate change and rank water conservation projects across the area. Biologists, hydrologists and managers from federal and state agencies are using these rankings to develop additional priorities for native Westslope cutthroat trout and stream restoration projects.

Viewing our work through the lens of climate resilience allows us to better invest limited conservation funds and address one of our most urgent threats—increasing drought. Late-season flows are critical to nature and people and rigorous science is essential to good decision-making. With strong science and authentic collaboration, TNC and our partners are improving late-season flows. To keep pace with the threat, we need to engage more broadly and deeply in a concerted effort among water users – from landowners to anglers to local communities – as well as scientists and conservationists. Doing so will protect our floodplains (watch a video) and wetlands, support collaborative drought management and implement natural water storage solutions across our headwaters.

Working together, we are finding innovative solutions that can be scaled up from local streams to all the state’s waterways.

*Watershed resilience refers to the ability of a river to maintain basic functions, such as stream flows, sediment movement, and dynamic floodplains, in spite of severe disturbances like unprecedented drought, flooding, or invasive plants and animals.

Natural Water Storage Think of natural water storage as “soaking the sponge.”

How Can You Help?

Contribute your enthusiasm for nature in Montana by making a monthly gift to protect local watersheds.