Bobbie Bartlette stands above Lolo Creek and looks down where the water used to flow and says, "It just makes you so sad."
The creek looks more like a rutted gravel road than the storied waterway that Lewis and Clark followed west to the Bitterroot Divide. This is the second year in a row that the lower stretches of the creek have dried up in late summer. The snowpack waters no longer make it to their confluence with the Bitterroot River. The last mile and a half of creek bottom is completely parched.
"It's a crisis all right," says Bartlette, a long-time Lolo resident and retired forester who serves as president of the Lolo Watershed Group. "This is supposed to be a perennial creek."
A lighter snowpack, hotter summers and unsustainable patterns of water use are contributing to drain Lolo Creek during the dry season. "De-watering," as Bartlette calls it, leaves behind it the stink of dead rotten fish, a denuded aquatic environment and general nervousness. And it threatens one of Montana's important native fisheries, a spawning ground for bull trout and cutthroats, and a major tributary of the Bitterroot River.
"Lolo Creek needs a lot of help," says Jed Whiteley, a Clark Fork Coalition project manager who works alongside Bartlette to protect Lolo Creek. "It needs habitat restored. It needs to be cleaned up. But right now what it needs most is more water."
Since the late 1800s, the farmers and ranchers who live along Lolo Creek's banks have used its water to hydrate their crops and cows. Many of the water rights that govern current use of the creek date back to that frontier era, when the creek, the climate and the character of human settlement were very different.
One of the largest irrigation ditches in the area, called the Maclay-Lolo ditch, draws water from Lolo Creek just downstream from the Mormon Peak bridge. According to documents supplied by the Montana Department of Natural Resource and Conservation, the ditch provides water to at least 39 individuals or corporate entities for stock and irrigation use. Many of these individuals have waters rights drafted in the 1880s and administered under the Montana Water Rights Act, making their combined claims on the creek a powerful arbiter of its fate.
"Under Montana law the first in time is the first in right and these are some very senior water rights," says Ethan Mace, a DNRC surface water hydrologist. "In Montana, water users have the right to legally dry up a creek."
The Maclay-Lolo ditch can legally draw 53.5 cubic feet per second from Lolo Creek and its tributary, Mormon Creek. These rights draw out a major portion of the creek's water in late summer. But they don't drain the creek completely. It trickles on for a few more miles before it goes dry.
Many irrigators draw from Lolo Creek, and each instance of water appropriation contributes to the shortage. "But there is not one individual or group that is to blame," says Bartlette. "This is a complex problem."
Bartlette suspects that residents of Lolo, who draw their water from the aquifer below Lolo Creek not to grow crops but to sprinkle lawns and fill bathtubs, are also having a major impact on water levels.
"I'll be the first to admit that I use well water, especially during bad fire seasons like this one," she says. "But Lolo has grown a lot and water use patterns have not taken that into account."
Between 2000 and 2010, Lolo experienced a 14.9 percent population growth, with the current population reported at 3,892. The Lolo Water and Sewer District, which supplies water to more than 1,000 homes, notes a corresponding uptick in consumption.
During the last decade, more than 300 new homes were added to the water and sewer system. In 2000, the district pumped 235 million gallons from the Lolo aquifer for residential use. Last year it pumped 282 million gallons.
"For Lolo, that's a significant increase," says Jasen Neese, the water superintendent for the district. "Common sense tells you that if you stick a lot more straws into a milkshake, that milkshake is going to go down much faster."
If this situation offers one unwelcome truth, there it is: The increasing demand placed on Lolo Creek by irrigators and other residents exceeds the supply, with troubling implications for both habitat and humans.
People are searcing for answers. Bartlette is among them. So is Jed Whiteley of the Clark Fork Coalition. Together they are trying to build alliances with ranchers, farmers, residents and state officials in an attempt to protect Lolo Creek from a climate that is getting hotter and drier and a human population that is ever-growing.
Their most ambitious project is an attempt to develop a drought management plan for Lolo Creek. They take their inspiration from the Blackfoot Challenge, a conservation group which crafted an innovative drought plan for the Blackfoot River watershed. The Blackfoot plan rests on the premise that water users must commit to "shared sacrifice" by voluntarily limiting water use during dry spells. The Lolo Creek advocates want to replicate the plan, but it will take patience, determination and community cooperation.
"This plan won't come together unless the key people are involved," says Whiteley. "That includes the irrigators, the residents who use wells and the state agencies."
When they finally do get the water back in the creek, they'll have to worry about keeping the sediment out. But that's a springtime story. The dry season is not over yet.