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Keep Cool Creek

Members of the Clark Fork Coalition board of directors check out a new fish passage structure on Keep Cool Creek near Lincoln. A water rights deal with landowner Paul Roos will keep the upper Blackfoot River healthy for fish in dry summers.

A couple of little creeks near Lincoln will have a big impact on Blackfoot River fish thanks to a million-dollar streamflow agreement nearing completion.

“This is the most important water deal I’ve ever worked on,” Clark Fork Coalition project manager Jed Whiteley said. “It’s huge. When we’re done, this will be adding almost half the flow at the confluence of these creeks and the main stem of the Blackfoot.”

That matters around the headwaters of this scenic mountain river that nearly runs dry in many late summer months. Complicated geology, traditional pasture irrigation and growing domestic demands have left many of the upper Blackfoot’s tributary streams nearly fishless or prone to disastrous interruptions.

The Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition had been leasing water rights from property owners along Stonewall and Keep Cool creeks that feed into the Blackfoot just west of Lincoln. Trout Unlimited had been leasing rights along Poorman Creek, which also feeds in there. Coincidentally, all three leases  came due this year just as factors aligned that made a more permanent arrangement possible.

Poorman Creek flows out of the Garnet Range south of Lincoln. Despite getting frequently drained by irrigation ditches, it also provides the area’s strongest potential cutthroat and bull trout habitat. Whitely figured out that ranch owner Perk Perkins needed just 3 cubic feet per second of Poorman’s flow to water his hay fields with modern pivot sprinklers, leaving another 15 cfs of his senior water right available for fish and river contribution.

“This is the biggest permanent acquisition the Clark Fork Coalition has ever undertaken and it couldn't have happened without the work of Stan Bradshaw at Trout Unlimited,'' Whitelry said.

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The land trust used a major grant from the Bonneville Power Administration’s Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program to cover about 90 percent of the $750,000 cost, with the Perkins family donating back a significant portion of their proceeds from the sale to make the deal work. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Future Fisheries Program also contributed cash.

North of Highway 200, Lincoln resident Paul Roos had been rearranging reaches of Stoneman Creek and Keep Cool Creek to return beavers to the landscape while preserving the traditional ranching activity. He had also been leasing in-stream flows to the coalition when the chance came around to make a permanent change. The resulting deal is worth about $300,000.

“I cannot imagine there will be any agriculture neighbor or partner who might have cows on my place that will feel like their operation has been diminished,” Roos said of the agreement to keep an additional 5.5 cfs from Keep Cool heading to the Blackfoot. “But it’s a big enough deal that people downstream will notice there’s more wildlife and more wild fish going back and forth through their property.”

Roos also sold rights to another 6 cfs from Stonewall Creek to the coalition. Both creeks get some or all of their water from springs at the base of the Scapegoat Wilderness, making them ideal trout spawning habitat. But past irrigation practices had left them nearly fish-free. Committing the new water flows to the Blackfoot system will help those habitats reconnect to the larger fishery, Roos said.

“These deals keep agriculture on the land and water in the creeks, which are both pretty important in Lincoln,” Whiteley said. “The time is right now for this kind of conservation work if there are going to continue to be strongholds for native trout. We’re shaping up for a very bad water year next year, with an early warm spring and early snowmelt. Getting these deals in place for next year is very important for fishing in the upper Blackfoot.”

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