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Episode 8 - Irrigation in the Bitterroot

September 2021

In the Bitterroot Valley, irrigation is ingrained with the way of life for many. It's the water that feeds the fields and the animals; water that determines the hay harvests. Irrigation is a multi-faceted task that often involves the collaboration of users and managers, and an understanding of how water cycles in our watershed, from snowpack to soil infiltration.

There are many irrigation districts and associations throughout the valley. The Water Forum talked with two of the largest, Bitter Root Irrigation District (BRID) and Daly Ditches, for our upcoming virtual Irrigation in the Bitterroot Tour. BRID manages Lake Como and services 16,665 acres along a 72-mile stretch of their main distribution canal, commonly referred to as The Big Ditch. Daly Ditches manages nine main ditches, including the Republican, Ward, and Hedge ditches, totaling 72 miles in length, servicing 14,837 acres. Their water comes from the main stem of the Bitterroot and its tributaries.

John Crowley, manager of BRID, shared information about their water process and how vital sharing the resource is.  “Water is our livelihood, and we have precious's important that everybody works with one another,” he said. Rhonda King, from Daly Ditches, offered historical insight into the state of water accessibility before the irrigation district ditches were present. According to King, in the 1880s Marcus Daly expanded irrigation beyond those constructed by farmers, ultimately contributing to the system Daly Ditches uses today.

Farmers and ranchers rely on the ditch systems, have individual water rights off, or a combination of the two. Alan Maki, a local rancher, emphasized that water is “the lifeblood here in our valley” and noted the importance of working together for our water quality and quantity. He also explained that “informing ourselves on water goes along ways to understanding potential ways to make it better for everyone”.

Informing yourself on water can look quite different from person to person. New landowners can work to educate themselves on the water running through their property.  Knowing whether it is a ditch or stream will change factors of access, permitting, and water use. Those in the valley working the soil can learn more about soil types and soil moisture. Recreators can look into responsible water practices and ways to get involved in protecting water bodies.

According to the irrigation districts, there are a few best practices for interacting with the irrigation ditches present in the valley that can improve their function and durability.  In terms of safety and ditch efficiency, the companies request that community members not use the accesses roads along the ditches or plant trees on the banks.  To the best of our efforts, litter, pet waste, and other contaminants should be kept out of the ditches.  Additionally, Crowley advises that community members be aware of and respect the maintenance and responsibility of the Lake Como Dam and subsequent ditches, especially in times of high water.

There are many resources out there to dive deeper into irrigation and water use in the Bitterroot Valley.  BRID and Daly Ditches encourage water users with questions to reach out in-person or on the phone. 

Check out the virtual Irrigation in the Bitterroot Tour for more info.

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