On the arid Rocky Mountain Front, water scarcity is a constant. The Sun River flows 70 miles from its headwaters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness out of the Rocky Mountain Front to join the Missouri River outside the town of Great Falls, Montana. Although rugged in its mountain beauty, it is often called “next-year country,” because of ranchers’ undying hope that “next year” things will be better—next year the rains will come, the crops will be better.

The Coca-Cola Company partnered with Trout Unlimited, the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, the Sun River Watershed Group and the Bureau of Reclamation to create that better future for the river and the producers who rely on the Sun River’s water.  

Discussing change in irrigation
Laura Ziemer presenting at Simms Gauge.

It’s a tricky problem, a river without water. And sometimes you feel the overwhelming odds against you, looking at a riverbed’s dry, exposed rocks that should be under water. But the ironic thing about a dry river is that it is, at its core, hopeful work. You have to believe in a better day to come to engage in creating the solutions.

The Sun River’s day was over 10 years in the making. Two irrigation districts and the largest ranch under irrigated production in Montana divert most of the flow of the Sun River high in the basin in order to irrigate tens of thousands of productive agricultural acres to keep the basin’s rural community vibrant and its working landscape strong. No one wanted to see that change. 

Evidence of a stronger community
(from left to right) Laura Ziemer, Trout Unlimited, Rich Boyle, Fort Shaw Irrigation District, Dave Mannix, Mannix Brothers Ranch, on Sun River project tour. Photo by Jonathan Stumpf, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  

But change needed to come if the Sun’s wild trout fishery was to persist. The Sun will flow at thousands of cubic feet per second (cfs) as "The Bob" releases its deep mountain snowpack to the sudden thaw of spring, but the river would often be reduced to a trickle of 50 cfs or less during the hot, dry days of summer below the irrigation diversions. A base flow of 130 cfs is needed to sustain the trout fishery. Over a decade of discussion, analysis, project identification, feasibility studies, and prioritization took place over the beans and rice of the Amigo Lounge, whose linoleum basement and folding chairs hosted countless meetings among the partners to the effort. From the faithful, large, percolating coffee pot in the basement came consensus around investing in the aging infrastructure of the Fort Shaw Irrigation District, whose energetic manager, Rich Boyle, was willing to take on the risk of large-scale construction.   

The partners wrote grant proposals, hounded state legislators, hired engineers and contractors to propose an ambitious undertaking to convert a leaky ditch to a pipe and re-route a portion of canal to take the pressure off a sensitive bottleneck in the Irrigation District’s water delivery.

But it wasn’t until The Coca-Cola Company stepped up to match the state and federal funding that the partners began installing 2,000 feet of new lined canal, 2,310 feet of new PVC pipe, retired an old section of irrigation ditch, and converted 4,860 feet of open ditch to PVC pipe. The results are a reward in itself:  9,185 acre-feet---11.7 billion liters--each year added to the flow of the Sun River. But the deeper reward is the friendships forged through adversity and shared persistence. The achievement is overcoming decades of hostility between agriculture and conservation; creating common ground and mutual benefit where before there was suspicion and distrust. The river flows restored and the agricultural water delivered is evidence of a stronger community.  

Laura Ziemer is senior counsel and water policy advisor for Trout Unlimited.