Anyone from Southwest Montana knows the value of our shared water resources, whether they’re fly fishermen on our blue ribbon streams and rivers, ranchers and farmers who depend on it for their livelihood, or recreational whitewater enthusiasts who dream of spring runoff. In wet years, when we have plenty to go around, we don’t worry about it too much. Unfortunately, we have seen fewer of those than anyone would like. Combine that with rapid growth and a changing climate and we are in for a dry rocky road if we don’t plan ahead.
The Yellowstone River holds a special place in our hearts and we’re well aware that increasing demand for its pristine undammed waters has taken its toll. We were lucky to have slightly above average snow pack last winter. Unfortunately, last year we saw fish kills and river access closures. Our local economy depends on keeping rivers like the Yellowstone open and flowing strong.
It would seem that there would be a conflict between ranchers who pull water out of the Yellowstone and those who would like to see it left in the river. That is not the case with Jeff Reed. He runs a ranch on the banks of the Yellowstone and has been working with local businesses to find ways to use technology to decrease his water consumption while increasing his yield. Smart watering -- with the help of reasonably priced sensors – have helped him decrease his water usage significantly.
We recently met with Liz Kearny from the Livingston Enterprise who wrote this article on how Paradise Valley residents put smart water technology to use. She briefly touched on soil and how it can increase crop nutrition, but a factor even more important for the health of our cherished Yellowstone River is presence of vibrant, living soil. Healthier soils with increased organic matter, improved soil structure, and thriving microbiology hold more water, preventing runoff and slowing downward movement. This results in less water usage, lower energy bills, and a healthier river system.
We tested the microbiology of Jeff’s fields and found that he had low fungal activity. If you’re curious about how, exactly, this affects his water usage, I highly recommend reading Jeff Lowenfels’ book Teaming With Fungi. We added a low cost organic soil stimulant to half of his field in an attempt to jump-start that fungal activity. Next year we will re-test that plot and compare it to his control side. Our goal is to further increase Jeff’s water savings from the 30% he saw this first year. We can do this by combining regenerative agriculture with technology. Not only will it be good for our local river ecosystems, it will be good for farmers' and ranchers' bottom lines.