South Meadow Creek irrigation project gets underway

South Meadow Creek Rancher Wyatt Gibbs looks down on the work starting to install a new water diversion structure in South Meadow Creek. The project will provide more efficient water use for neighboring ranches, along with a more fish-friendly diversion. Photo by Greg Lemon

McALLISTER – A project on South Meadow Creek near McAllister is going to make irrigating more efficient next summer as well as make the creek a little better for the aquatic critters that live there.

A new diversion structure is being built on the Endecott Ranch on lower South Meadow Creek. The concrete structure will replace an inefficient diversion structure that was difficult to manage and susceptible to high water events.

The new structure is hopefully on the first of three along the creek, said Sunni Heikes-Knapton, Madison Watershed Coordinator.

The Madison Conservation District funded an irrigation study along the creek with grant money from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The study included water monitoring and an irrigation structure analysis up and down the creek.

The study also looked at the riparian areas along the creek, Heikes-Knapton said.

When taken together, the studies gave the conservation district a good idea of where to focus work on irrigation structures. The first priority being the one at the Endecott place, which services the most senior water rights on the stream. One lateral off the structure goes to the Endecotts and the other ditch is used by both the Endecott and Gibbs ranches.

“The overall intent of the project is to allow irrigators to have more control over the water going through their irrigation systems,” Heikes-Knapton said.

The preparation work for the fittings got underway last week. Fall is the best time of year to do work on irrigation structures, said Molly Skorpik, an engineer on the project from Morrison Maierle, Inc. in Missoula.

The structure will be in place by spring and ready to use, Skorpik said.

The new diversion will be able to withstand a 100-year flood and will also allow for much easier control of the creek flow using stop logs. With the old diversion, irrigators had to nearly stop water flow in the creek to get water down their ditches. Now more water will be left in the river, she said.

The two head gates on the lateral ditches off the diversion will also allow for measure water more exact, Skorpik said.

The structure will also create a series of pools below to allow for fish passage. This didn’t exist on the old diversion, she said.

Rancher Janet Endecott was pleased to have a new diversion structure and pleased with what it would mean for the creek.

“This structure has been needing some help every since we moved here,”

Endecott said. “I’m really hoping with this new system we can keep a little water going in the creek even on a dry year like this.”

The conservation district has used the grant money to fund design work on two other irrigation structures on South Meadow Creek. The hope is to eventually secure grant funding to complete those projects as well, Heikes-Knapton said.

And along with the diversion work, she will be monitoring several sites on the creek to see just how the new diversion is impacting stream flow and riparian health.

“I think what we’ll be able to see in future years is something that we can learn as an example,” she said.

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