Reducing Our Risk

Blackfoot Challenge

Entry Overview

From ranchers to fishing outfitters, Blackfoot Watershed stakeholders are balancing their water needs and protecting the river’s native fisheries, including threatened bull trout.  This “shared sacrifice” is in response to an in-stream flow right held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that sets minimum flow targets.  After several years of changing weather and water cycle patterns, those most affected by recurring drought: ranchers and irrigators, conservation organizations, state water and fisheries management agencies and river outfitters, formed the Blackfoot Drought Committee to implement a voluntary drought response effort in the watershed.

In the last 13 years, low flows have triggered drought response 8 times, demonstrating the issue of chronic drought impacts to watersheds and residents, and the new reality of changing climate patterns. With local economies based largely on agriculture and outdoor recreation, drought planning and stewardship are critical to community sustainability.  Replicating this success relies on a solid foundation of collaboration, along with respected leaders within the agricultural and natural resources communities who rally support for a new method of watershed stewardship.

General Info
Email :
Organization Address: 
405 Main, POB 103
Ovando, Montana 59854
United States
Population Impacted: 
8500 headwaters, millions Clark Fork River system
Identify the likelihood and frequency of this hazard : 
Blackfoot Watershed stakeholders are working to balance their water needs. To protect the river’s native fisheries Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks holds an in-stream flow right with minimum flow targets. This led to the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan, an effort to balance the sacrifice made by all water users. In the last 13 years, low flows have triggered 8 drought responses, demonstrating chronic drought impacts to this watershed, its residents, and the reality of changing climate patterns.
Explain how vulnerable the community is to this hazard: 
Following years of changing weather and water cycle patterns, including significant drought, the Blackfoot Drought Committee was formed in 2000 to implement a voluntary drought response in the watershed. That committee represents those most affected by recurring drought: ranchers and irrigators, conservation organizations, state water and fisheries management agencies, and river outfitters. With local economies based on agriculture and outdoor recreation, drought planning and watershed stewardship are critical to community sustainability.
List the potential affects of this hazard: 
The Blackfoot Drought Plan is based on the premise of “shared sacrifice” with all water users (agricultural, outfitters, homeowners associations, businesses, government agencies, and conservation groups) voluntarily agreeing to take actions that will conserve water and reduce stress to fisheries during critical low flows. Persistent drought threatens the viability of agricultural operations. And without a plan to share resources, Fish, Wildlife and Parks can enforce water use and angling restrictions, further impacting the local economy.
Identify how sensitive the community is to these affects: 
Blackfoot communities rely heavily on irrigated agriculture and river recreation to support the local economy. Maintaining a healthy river system protects native fisheries that draw many to this iconic valley. Changing climate patterns are impacting the Blackfoot growing season, posing a significant need to adapt to a new water cycle. New tribal water rights will also dictate minimum instream flows and require collaborative conservation if Blackfoot irrigators are to maintain their current levels of operation.
Preparedness Goal: 
Coordinate voluntary drought response by water users to conserve water and/or reduce stress to fisheries during critical low flow periods.
Implementing Actions: 

The Blackfoot water steward (WS) works with the Drought Committee to disseminate water supply information, update individual drought plans and coordinate drought response. The WS maintains rosters of plan participants, including consumptive water users (irrigators) and non-consumptive users (fishing outfitters). Nearly 90 individual drought plans have been developed by working with irrigators to enact conservation measures. Common strategies include pooling water rights and using them in rotation, improving irrigation equipment efficiency, reducing overall use or shutting down irrigation. The WS works with landowners to update drought plans and ensure they add value with water conserved. The WS facilitates landowner outreach to help them respond quickly when drought occurs. The goal is to boost the number of participating irrigators and expand the benefits of voluntary drought response toward conserving flows. During peak drought, the WS, assisted by state hydrologists, provides technical assistance to water users in implementing drought plans. The WS is also enhancing outfitter participation through outreach to educate them about the drought plan and voluntary restrictions on fishing techniques that protect native fish. In working to quantify water savings, we aim to increase participation in critical river sections and to help the public realize the program’s value. By quantifying the benefits back to the river, we can also reinforce with irrigators that their efforts make a difference. The Challenge works with state water agencies to measure water flow and temperature in key river sections. During drought, we conduct field checks to ensure irrigator water use is in alignment with their drought plans and to quantify what water is left in the system. The Drought Committee uses this data to make adjustments to the overall plan. The water steward incorporates the water savings data into public outreach to raise awareness about how stakeholders are making sacrifices to ensure watershed health.

Describe Your Solution: 

Through the basin-wide shared conservation of water resources, the goal of maintaining critical in-stream flows during drought can be achieved. The plan offers an alternative to traditional enforcement of Montana FWP water rights (and pending tribal rights) and angling restrictions, enabling those who participate in voluntary drought restrictions to continue to use the river in a conservation-focused way. Under the “shared sacrifice” concept, irrigators, outfitters and recreationists all share a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on the future and health of the river, tributaries and fisheries.

Our goal is for water conservation practices to become second nature among Blackfoot irrigators, land managers and recreationists. A number of water rights holders senior to the Montana FWP Murphy water right participate in the program. Many of these are among the largest agricultural water users. As an effort of “shared sacrifice,” the Drought Response program works to engage all river stakeholders in reducing water use, keeping clean cold water in the river, and protecting native fisheries, including the threatened bull trout.

The program generates meaningful results by bringing together citizen leaders from all stakeholder segments to craft a balanced response to changing river and weather conditions each year. The drought response process is fluid – with the overarching Blackfoot Drought Response plan reviewed and updated annually based on lessons learned from each summer. Success also depends on maximizing participation and continually supporting good landowner relationships through the process. With more than 90 individual drought plans in place and with active participation from several leading outfitters, the Blackfoot benefits from a reliable water savings each year that drought response is enacted. In addition, public outreach helps to ensure there is recognition of and support for the generous sacrifice irrigators and outfitters make each year in adapting to changing river flow and temperature impacts. 


The economic benefits of voluntary drought response include a healthier river system and fisheries that can support the recreation elements of the local economy. Participating irrigators are improving the water use efficiency of their operations and planning ahead for potential late season water restrictions, ensuring necessary crop production and sustaining multi-generational ranching operations.


The Blackfoot Challenge estimates that 50 CFS or 32 million gallons of water is conserved during a typical period of active drought response. This water helps to protect habitat for native fisheries, including westslope cutthroat trout and the endangered bull trout.


The Drought Response Program has established a spirit of collaborative stewardship among diverse Blackfoot stakeholders that has extended into other elements of caring for our aquatic and terrestrial resources. There’s an added sense of appreciation between the sometimes competing interests related to fishing and ranching. The extensive outreach associated with the program has also improved public understanding of and support for the watershed’s natural resources.

What were the negative or unintended impacts (if any) associated with implementing this solution? : 

The Drought Committee has identified a need to develop more aggressive outreach to educate the public, landowners and outfitters about the drought plan’s value to overall watershed health. This communications effort needs to focus on understanding measurable results from drought participation. We are initiating a more comprehensive outreach plan to educate the public and engage additional irrigators and outfitters, including messaging around an expanded monitoring program to demonstrate water benefits achieved through the voluntary drought plan. An additional consequence has been some discussion about ensuring there is an equal sacrifice made between fishing outfitters and irrigators. Many irrigators felt they were giving more toward the success of the plan even as fishing continued in low flows. As a result, we have created a brochure that encourages anglers to adopt voluntary fishing technique restrictions during times of low flows to help reduce the stress on native fish. 

Return on Investment: How much did it cost to implement these activities? How do your results above compare to this investment?: 

There is a large return for a relatively low investment in the Blackfoot Drought Response. The costs related to drought response activities are largely incurred through the need for a program coordinator. That cost will vary, but generally requires approximately half of an FTE over the course of a year. The Blackfoot Drought Committee is made up of volunteers who donate their time to meet regularly throughout there year. There are occasional meeting expenses – facility rental and meals for longer meetings. Outreach costs include several hundred dollars per year for mailings to coordinate with landowners, production and printing costs for outreach materials, and some advertising and public relations expenses. Outreach costs don’t typically exceed a $2,000 - $3,000, but depend on whether new materials are being created and can vary between a good flow year and a severe drought year.

What are the main factors needed to successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?: 

As the Blackfoot Challenge’s innovative strategies have generated success, increasingly the organization is asked to share its model with organizations and agencies beyond our watershed. We are currently engaged in a transferability project that helps bring together regional NGOs for shared learning and networking. Challenge staff and board members also regularly speak at workshops and professional conferences. In addition, the Blackfoot Challenge water program coordinator sits on the board of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, a membership organization that supports capacity-building and training for Montana’s many watershed collaboratives. All of these activities provide opportunity for documenting and transferring our watershed conservation methods across Montana and the West. In the process of sharing our results elsewhere, we have learned that the key to replicating success is for a watershed to have a solid foundation of collaboration in place, along with respected leaders within the agricultural and natural resources communities who can help rally support for a new method of watershed stewardship.

Contest Info
Contest Name: 
Reducing Our Risk

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