Freshwater conservation in the High Divide Headwaters
High Divide Headwaters Freshwater conservation in the High Divide Headwaters © Nathan Korb

The Nature Conservancy in Montana

Freshwater Conservation

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

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.

Conserving Water with Science and Partnerships

The Nature Conservancy in Montana is dedicated to protecting our watersheds and transforming the way we manage limited water supply. Because only a basin-wide approach can provide the water conservation effects needed to adequately improve water flow, we are collaborating with key partners in the Missouri Headwaters, including landowners, state agencies, federal agencies, and local watershed organizations to achieve measurable goals.

On the Yellowstone River, we are securing channel migration easements that prohibit obstacles that impede the river's natural meanders and seasonal flood cycles—freeing the river to move like a river.

The Conservancy and its partners are currently working across the upper Missouri River Basin to restore and maintain natural flows to our waterways using science-based plans for on-the-ground work, including:

  • Constructing beaver mimicry structures in the face of climate change
  • Replanting native streamside vegetation and changing livestock management to restore floodplain resilience
  • Upgrading culverts, bridges to improve connectivity and stream function
  • Improving irrigation infrastructure to manage water more carefully
  • Removing encroaching conifers from wetlands to improve water storage

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

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

Climate Resilient Watersheds

In the Rocky Mountain West, late summer streamflows 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, trending data shows that this scenario is already the reality. 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, committed groups of stakeholders 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 prioritization approach. The project locates watersheds that hold the most snow longest into the summer. We’re testing 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 wetland 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, the Conservancy and 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 and wetlands, support collaborative drought management and implement natural water storage solutions across our headwaters.

*Watershed resilience refers to the ability of a river to maintain basic functions, such as streamflows, 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.