Voice of the River

Drought in the Upper Gallatin Watershed

The Upper Gallatin Watershed has been marked by severe drought conditions this summer but what does this mean for the people, plants, and animals that live in the watershed? Below we provide answers to common questions related to drought.

What is a drought?

A drought is a period of prolonged precipitation deficiencies leading to abnormal dryness. Abnormality is characterized by historical averages within the given geographical area. Drought designations can be affected by climate (weather and rainfall), agriculture (soil moisture and crop dryness), and/or hydrology (streamflow, groundwater, reservoir height).

How will I be affected by the drought?

Drought has direct and indirect effects. While the agricultural industry may be affected by crop failures or hay shortages, all residents can be affected indirectly. Effects include: food production challenges, impaired ecosystems, substantial increase in wildfire risk, fewer recreational activities, decreased drinking water supply, and more.

How is drought affecting the river?

Generally, drought causes lower streamflow levels. Streamflow is measured by the USGS at Deer Creek and at Gallatin Gateway by permanent monitors that measure temperature, streamflow, and stream height. This year, temperatures have hovered around 60F, above 1-year average, discharge is as low as 300 cubic feet per second, below 2-year average.

It rained recently. Why hasn’t the drought monitor changed to reflect that?

Droughts are representative of lower-than-average rainfall and streamflow levels over a season. The only way that a drought will typically end would be from regular, soaking rains that fully replenish the groundwater levels or from significant snowfall accumulation.

What Should I Be Doing?

The two driving factors for drought are temperature and precipitation.These two factors are largely beyond our control, but we can control water management and storage, as well as the landscape’s resilience to future drought. Behavior change during drought can help relieve the worst effects of these climate patterns. Commit to water conservation more heavily in times of drought. Participate in the Task Force’s water conservation efforts, such as our Trout-Friendly Landscape Program or Indoor and Outdoor Water Fixture Rebates.

What is the Task Force doing to build drought resilience in Big Sky?

  • The Task Force is working with engineering firm, AE2S, to create a coordinated Water Conservation and Drought Management Plan for our community. The plan is anticipated to be released by the end of 2021.
  • The Task Force manages the Big Sky Water Conservation Program which includes rebates for indoor and outdoor fixtures that reduce home water use and conserve water, meaning more water to the Gallatin!
  • The Task Force is partnering with Big Sky Resort to implement an instream restoration project below Lake Levinsky this fall. The project will reconnect the stream to its floodplain and adjacent wetlands. Wetlands function like natural tubs or sponges, storing water and slowly releasing it. The EPA estimates that an acre of wetlands can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
  • The Task Force is working with BSWSD, BSR, and Spanish Peaks to expand the use of recycling wastewater as snow. Returning clean, treated wastewater to the watershed as snow is much more beneficial to the river than watering a golf course. Snow is water in the bank for late summer when the rivers are low.
  • The Task Force is working with Town Center and BSWSD to recycle wastewater for landscape irrigation. Using clean treated water instead of clean groundwater to water landscapes in Town Center is a win for water!
  • Our consultant, WGM, is finalizing an analysis that maps stormwater and identifies opportunities/projects in our community to capture stormwater to remove pollution and allow the water to infiltrate into the ground. Stormwater is water or snow that runs over impervious surfaces carrying pollutants and moving faster through the system than rain or snow that falls on soils and replenishes groundwater. The more we can slow the flow of water through the system  – the better for the river when flows are low!


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