Made-in-Montana drought solutions aim to help the water-stressed West

Oct 4, 2016
Collaborative approach produces successful community-based response to drought on the Big Blackfoot River.

In response to repeated drought events, the Blackfoot Challenge, a local community conservation group based in the Blackfoot watershed of Western Montana developed a voluntary drought response program in partnership with local farmers and ranchers 15 years ago. Local participants in the program use the principle of shared sacrifice to more effectively manage precious water resources, especially in dry, low-flow years.

Drought and extreme conditions in the watershed two years in a row underscore the importance of having long-term water stewardship programs in place to help rural agricultural communities respond effectively. 

Through the program, Blackfoot residents work to balance the water needs of farmers and ranchers who depend on irrigation with the need to protect the river’s native fisheries, including threatened bull trout.  Nearly 90 individual drought plans have been developed by working with irrigators to enact water conservation measures.

“The Drought Response Program is about working together and recognizing that we all have a shared interest in the health and sustainability of our water resources,” said David Mannix, fifth-generation Blackfoot watershed rancher and co-chair of the Challenge’s Water Resources Committee. “As a senior water right holder, I realize it’s in the best interest of my family operation and our community to participate in drought response alongside my neighbors to ensure the water we depend on is available for generations of ranchers and anglers to come.”  

In the last 13 years, low flows have triggered the community drought response program eight times, demonstrating the issue of chronic drought impacts to watersheds and residents and the new reality associated with changing climate patterns. During a typical drought year, the Challenge estimates 32 million gallons of water are conserved through the drought response program. This success is the result of hard work at the community level that starts years in advance rather than in the middle of the drought – the worst time to develop a drought plan.

The Blackfoot Challenge’s long years of work have produced a number of fine-tuned programs that together make a significant difference for the region. In addition to water rights pooled in rotation, reductions in overall water use, and extensive public outreach, some of these programs are:

  • A voluntary drought response plan,
  • A voluntary irrigation efficiency plan,
  • Informational programs about cover crops, and
  • A voluntary angling response plan when river temperatures are dangerously warm for native trout, and/or flows are too low to warrant continued fishing.

All of these programs are based on the concept of shared sacrifice among community members, and it is the combination of these programs – through made-in-Montana solutions – that help the community in times of challenge. With this summer’s dry weather triggering a second consecutive year of drought management, the Blackfoot Challenge is again proving to be a vital resource for Montana water users.

“Droughts and severe water shortages have been in the news constantly the last several years,” said Anne Carlson, a climate associate with The Wilderness Society.

“People are looking for on-the-ground solutions that help people and wildlife alike, but the truth is that the best time to plan for getting through a drought is long before you’re in the middle of one. The incredibly innovative ideas of the Blackfoot valley citizens have reduced risks from water shortages to Montana’s rural agricultural communities for more than a decade now, while helping to sustain the native trout fisheries of the iconic Blackfoot River."

The Blackfoot Challenge is a collaborative community-based organization that coordinates management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands. Assuming a “ridge-top to ridge-top” approach, the Challenge’s mission is to coordinate efforts to conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot watershed for present and future generations. They address rural values through a community-driven process that coordinates voluntary, incentive-based private land conservation, collaborative processes for public land management, and partner cooperation. Website:


Anne Carlson, The Wilderness Society, 406-548-7964;

Jennifer Schoonen, Blackfoot Challenge, 406-360-6445;