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Upcoming Northwestern Energies Fisheries Projects On The Upper Madison In 2021

Updated: Mar 1

Conservation Projects Carry On In 2021

Northwestern Energies (NE) operates nine hydro developments in Montana under Project License 2188 (Madison-Missouri River). License Protection, Mitigation and Enhancement (PM&E) projects are required to offset impacts to river resources from the continued operation of one or more of NE’s nine hydro developments (Hebgen, Madison, Hauser, Holter, Black Eagle, Rainbow, Cochrane, Ryan and Morony Dams). PM&E projects need to be prioritized toward in-river or on-the-ground measures that directly benefit fisheries and/or wildlife populations and their habitats. They also include funding for labor by FWP to produce annual reports to NE describing the work of the previous year’s activities and how they meet federal requirements.

There’s some interesting projects on the way to the Madison River and it’s tributaries this season. Among them a couple major research projects perhaps more long term focused. One aimed at studying the current flushing flow regime and how to improve that function if possible, and another examining the situation surrounding the seasonal dewatering of Indian Creek (a major drainage to the Madison). Others include new phases to the long term O’Dell Spring Creek restoration project, a fish barrier on a major tributary, westslope cutthroat habitat improvement in another tributary, and a swale reconstruction project to improve riparian habitat on a specific bank of river near Ruby Creek FAS.


Below I’ve tried to condense and/or describe in plain English summaries of each project. Some are pretty ”science-y”. I’ve also gathered the timeline and project costs for each one. One of the more interesting projects for me is the flushing flow research. So I’ll start with that one.


Madison River Sediment Mobility Evaluation

The primary objectives of this proposed study are to assess how flushing flows on the Madison River relate to sediment movement and to use that information to build on current efforts to improve mainstem spawning habitats. Above is a photo I took from the Ennis bridge last Spring during the flush flow.


Currently, substrate core samples are collected every year, and additional geomorphic and macroinvertebrate data every five years. Data are analyzed and results reviewed to determine flushing flow needs.


The flushing flow currently calls for up to 3,500 cfs at the Kirby gage for a minimum of 3 days in years when both runoff volume forecasts and Hebgen storage triggers are met. For those not familiar with typical flows at Kirby, 3,500 cfs is a sporting flow up there. For reference, 1,000 cfs is the flow right now. 1,200 cfs is a pretty typical flow for August.


The flushing flow is restricted to a maximum discharge of 3,500 cfs at Kirby Ranch to limit erosion of the outlet from Quake Lake. Rates of change in flow releases are limited to <10% per day. Since 2003 the 3,500 cfs flow has been exceeded four times at Kirby Ranch. The duration of mean daily flow exceedances of 3,500 cfs ranges from 2 days in spring 2020 to seven days in both 2008 and 2011. Flushing flows were not released between 2011 and 2017 due to construction activities at Hebgen Dam.


Some of the questions posed for the evaluation include the following:


1. What is the current availability or potential supply of suitable spawning substrate in various reaches?


2. How does the current flow regime relate to reach-scale sediment transport capacity and storage patterns? What discharge is needed to mobilize different substrate sizes under existing channel dimensions?


3. What is the potential to increase the quality and extent of suitable spawning habitat using the following strategies?


Based on the results generated from research, scientists hope to describe how current flushing flow hydrographs may or may not be expected to maintain or improve spawning and rearing habitats with existing channel morphologies. Also provided will be recommendations for a modified morphologic and/or hydrologic scenario to optimize the value of flushing flow events for spawning and rearing habitats.

The deliverable report will provide an analytical and field-correlated assessment of relationships between current flushing flow protocols, channel morphology, substrate, and sediment mobility in several select reaches. Additional analyses will be included to consider potential modifications to the flushing flow regime, channel morphology, and local scour elements to substantially improve spawning habitats within FWP’s four monitoring reaches (Pine Butte, Varney, Norris, Greycliff). Project success will be demonstrated through subsequent implementation and monitoring of project recommendations.


Basically, this is all about studying flows and how they move sediment and how we can manipulate that flow artificially via dam releases to benefit trout by improving spawning gravel. Lots of water moves more sediment. Cleaning sediment off spawning gravel is preferable. Trout like their spawning gravel juuuuuust right. The more good gravel available, the better we can expect from spawning production. More trout!


Turns out we have data available from a similarly aimed project in 2018. In 2018, R2 Resource Consultants summarized data collected between 2013 and 2017 and compared those results to previous data collected from 1994 to 2012. Data available for evaluation included:


• Redd Surveys – performed in the spring and fall at Kirby Ranch, Ennis Campground, Norris Bridge, and Greycliff Fishing Access.


• Macroinvertebrate Samples – collected every summer at Yellowstone National Park, Hebgen Dam, Kirby Ranch, Ennis Campground, Madison Powerhouse, Norris Bridge, and Greycliff Fishing Access.


• Gravel Samples – collected in the fall at Kirby Ranch, Ennis Campground, Norris Bridge, and Greycliff Fishing Access.


• Scour Chains – installed in 2014 at Ennis Campground, Norris Bridge, and Greycliff Fishing Access.

• River Cross-Section Surveys – performed in 2015 at Kirby Ranch, Ennis Campground, Norris Bridge, and Greycliff Fishing Access.


The monitoring results indicated that, at the upper river sites (Kirby Ranch and Ennis), sediment characteristics are generally good with low concentrations of fine sediment in gravels. The lower river sites (Norris Bridge and Greycliff Fishing Access) showed higher concentrations of fine sediments in the gravels. Aquatic macroinvertebrate data support the sediment results.


Repeat cross section surveys show little change in channel form between 1995 and 2015. In 2018 NE proposed the discontinuation of those cross section surveys due to the lack of evidence of any channel change as well as challenges with maintaining survey controls and limiting river access during the survey events.


The data comparison at the four monitoring sites showed the following:


• Net change in streambed elevation of less than 0.1 ft at most transects.

• No measurable scour or fill at scour chains since 2014 (Ennis, Norris Bridge, Greycliff).


• Increasing percent fines and embeddedness at the lower river sites since 2002.


• Longitudinal increase in sediment tolerant macroinvertebrate taxa between Kirby (upper river) and Greycliff (lower river).


• A higher quality of spawning gravels in the upper river versus lower river.

With Hebgen, Ennis, and Quake lakes serving as coarse sediment traps, there is some question as to the locations and nature of spawning gravel sources to the river below Quake Lake. This task consists of a coarse assessment of likely sources of spawning substrates to the river between Quake Lake and Greycliff Fishing Access Site. Sources may include banks, islands, tributaries etc. This task will include a remote mapping followed by a field inventory of the locations, patterns, and coarse grain sizes of depositional features on the river.


Based on the results generated, the report will describe how current flushing flow hydrographs may or may not be expected to maintain or improve spawning and rearing habitats with existing channel morphologies. It should also provide recommendations for a modified morphologic and/or hydrologic scenario to optimize the value of flushing flow events for spawning and rearing habitats.


Sort of science heavy in the sedimentary department but fascinating. Total project cost: $99,570

Completion: February to October 2021

Wall Creek Barrier Construction


I don’t have a photo of Wall Creek so here’s the Pallisades on the upper Madison. Wall Creek comes into the Madison just downstream.

This project addresses requirements by NE to monitor fish species of special concern (i.e., Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout). The proposed scope of work is to construct a fish migration barrier that would protect seven miles of habitat occupied by westslope cutthroat trout (WCT) in Wall Creek (tributary to the upper Madison between Pallisades and Ruby Creek on river left).


Wall Creek is occupied by a westslope cutthroat trout population of 95% genetic purity threatened by introgression with nonnative rainbow trout that can ascend Wall Creek from the Madison River. To eliminate the risk of further genetic dilution of the population, FWP plans to install a migration barrier to protect the upper 7.5 miles of habitat occupied by WCT. Successful implementation will aid in meeting management goals for WCT populations set by FWP and long-term persistence of the local population.


WCT is a species of trout native to Montana's cold-water streams west of the continental divide and the Upper Missouri River Basin east of the divide. Competition and hybridization with non-native fish, degradation of habitat, and climate change have reduced populations of pure WCT to 4% of their historic range in the Upper Missouri River Basin. MFWP and others are working to protect and recover WCT populations with 10% or less nonnative genetic contribution to 20% of their historic range.

FWP considers a population secure when they are isolated from non-native fishes, typically by a physical fish passage barrier, have a population size of at least 2,500 fish, and occupy enough habitat (5 to 6 miles) to assure long-term persistence.

Total project cost: $318,000

Completion: Summer/Fall 2021


West Fork Madison River Stream Restoration Project


This project will continue and expand on the work started in 2019, the West Fork Madison River Habitat Restoration project. In 2019, the USFS, Madison Ranger District, along with MFWP, identified a headwater reach of the West Fork Madison River as having high restoration potential. This headwater system harbors a stable, but isolated, population of WCT. This area was in the Eureka Fire (2013) and was historically altered by livestock grazing. Consequently, streambanks are eroding, pool habitat is lacking throughout, and high fine sediment is prominent. In 2019, bioengineering techniques were utilized to create numerous pool habitats with onsite large wood and root wads. Eroded streambanks were sloped back and fabric was staked over exposed streambanks to control erosion and accelerate vegetation establishment. Onsite rock was used to decrease stream width and increase depth in over-widened areas. Onsite willows were harvested and planted along the toe of restored banks and sensitive areas where large wood was keyed into streambanks. This proposal would expand on the work already completed to increase the length of streambank that is restored. Stream habitat condition would be improved to ensure long-term persistence of WCT within their native range.


Total project cost: $10,565

Completion: July-September 2021


O’Dell Creek Phase 18 Stream and Wetland Restoration Project


O’Dell Spring Creek and floodplain wetlands are important ecological resources to the Madison River as a major tributary supplying cold water. Over the past 15 years, 15 major phases of restoration work have culminated in the restoration of 14.5 miles of spring creek, and close to 900 acres of improved wetland functions.


The west branch O’Dell Creek was identified as the next high priority segment for restoration actions. In 2020, the upper one mile of the west branch was restored. This proposal for Phase 18 will complete restoration actions on the west branch and encompass approximately one mile of spring creek and floodplain riparian area.


The purpose of this project is to improve aquatic habitat conditions of O’Dell Creek and associated stream and floodplain functions. This will be accomplished by restoring the proper channel and floodplain dimensions and creating off-channel, disconnected shallow emergent, and shallow to deep open water wetlands.


Specifically, the goals of this project include: 1) improving aquatic habitat conditions for focal fish species including rainbow trout and brown trout; 2) establishing complex riffle and pool habitat features; 3) lowering channel width-to-depth ratios to decrease stream temperature; 4) restoring streambank conditions that support complex habitat conditions including undercut banks and deep lateral scour pools; 5) increasing channel sinuosity by reactivating abandoned meander oxbows characterized by high quality willow-shrub plant communities; and 6) creating a complex matrix of variable depth wetlands in over-widened channel sections as well as isolating wetlands from the channel to lower stream temperature.


Total project cost: $179,000

Completion: Summer/Fall 2021

(Funding provided from a variety of sources including landowners, NGOs, Federal, and NWE)


Indian Creek Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement and Streamflow Enhancement Project


Indian Creek, a tributary of the Madison River, is seasonally dewatered due to irrigation withdrawals via the Indian Creek Ditch. If you’ve ever floated between McAtee bridge and Storey ditch in late August, you’ve probably seen the large creek bed on your right bone dry. In response, Trout Unlimited proposes to conduct a hydrologic study of the Indian Creek Ditch that will quantify current water use and identify reaches where ditch loss is occurring. The results of the hydrologic study will be used to develop a suite of alternatives for improving irrigation infrastructure and ensuring there is enough water in Indian Creek so that it remains hydrologically connected to the Madison River year-round. Trout Unlimited will present the findings of the hydrologic study and alternatives analysis to the Indian Creek Ditch Company, which will select a preferred alternative for irrigation infrastructure improvements. During this timeframe, Trout Unlimited will also undertake an evaluation of the water rights and begin developing the necessary framework to protect water instream and get authorization for any water right changes required for the project.

Total project cost: $68,875

Completion: Present findings by April 2022

Ruby FAS Swale reconnect/restoration


This project aims to restore a floodplain swale area upstream of Ruby Creek on the left bank of the Madison River within Bureau of Land Management lands (seen in the photo above). Restoration concepts are based on the Madison River Riparian Restoration Master Plan. Written in 2018, this document outlines a restoration planning framework to restore and protect riparian, wetland, and aquatic habitats on the Madison River.


Objectives include: increasing riparian corridor width and woody vegetation cover, increasing aquatic habitat complexity, improving primary production and food web support, bolstering water quality and increase clean, cold water inputs to the Madison River, and improving biodiversity and habitat complexity to support long-term ecosystem resilience.


Preliminary ideas for on site activity includes installing a livestock fence protecting approximately 1.75 acres of floodplain including the swale and adjacent river bank where browse and trampling have limited establishment of woody riparian vegetation. The livestock fence will be ‘let down’ to allow for wildlife movement across the fence line when cattle are not grazing the area. At the upstream and downstream end of the fence, a fence extension will be installed that hangs over the river so cattle do not walk around the edge of the fence. The exact type of wildlife friendly livestock fence will be determined by project partners based on cost, feasibility, and maintenance considerations. The fence unit would be evaluated annually for maintenance and monitoring data would be collected to evaluate effectiveness. An annual monitoring report would be developed to document findings including information on wildlife versus livestock browse.


For swale reconnection, crews will excavate a linear feature connecting the upstream end of the existing floodplain swale to the Madison River. Excavation will remove material in about a 4,500 square foot area to an elevation that will allow surface flow into the swale at approximately a 1.5 to 2-year return flow. This will hydrologically activate the floodplain seasonally without capturing baseflow from the main channel. The excavated area at the newly created swale inlet will consist of exposed cobble and gravel to allow for natural processes to revegetate the inlet. This treatment works with the altered flow regime of the Madison River to create a location where the floodplain is activated by seasonal high flows, a natural process that would have occurred prior to Hebgen Dam. By increasing hydrologic connectivity within this floodplain swale, natural processes can aid in the expansion of the riparian corridor promoting aquatic habitat complexity, primary production and biodiversity.

Total project cost: $29,901

Completion: Spring to Fall 2021