Blackfoot Watershed Irrigation Modernization
Drought conditions have impacted Western Montana’s Blackfoot Watershed in 12 of the last 19 years, requiring Blackfoot irrigators to reduce or cease their water use many summers during peak crop production times. With the pressures of persistent drought, Blackfoot irrigators are looking for new adaptation strategies that support irrigation efficiency and better soil moisture holding capacity to help sustain them in low water years.
The Blackfoot Challenge water and land stewardship staff is piloting a new soil moisture monitoring program paired with our ongoing irrigation water management program. Our goal is to provide irrigators with the tools, knowledge and technical assistance that support more efficient water application. We aim to help producers better understand changing water supply conditions and adapt their practices and equipment to take advantage of peak spring stream flows, while conserving water and remaining viable during extreme low flows. Research has shown that the use of soil moisture monitoring can improve water conservation practices – which will also help landowners in complying with seasonal water use restrictions under the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan.
Weekly irrigation water management reports will advise irrigators about local crop water needs, practices to improve soil health and moisture holding capacity, and potential water supply shortages. Field-based soil moisture monitoring – using data loggers and in-ground probes – will further help producers refine their irrigation practices to ensure crop root zones are fully watered early in the year, storing moisture for later in the season when irrigation water is either not available or use is restricted due to drought response. This strategy will increase irrigator understanding of water use, crop needs and soil health, guiding future irrigation infrastructure and field management decisions.
Informed by irrigation scheduling reports and soil moisture monitoring, good irrigation water management can increase crop yields, improve crop quality, conserve water, save energy, decrease fertilizer requirements, and reduce non-point source pollution.
Lessons learned through soil moisture and irrigation monitoring will help Blackfoot producers plan for long-term drought resilience strategies – such as shifting irrigation timing, implementing soil health practices, or changing crop varieties.
Ultimately, better information and irrigation planning will support watershed sustainability in drought years when the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan requires irrigators to implement individual water conservation plans to fulfill the state’s instream flow water right.
The Montana Watershed Coordination Council’s Watershed Fund provides capacity and project support to the Blackfoot Challenge. To learn more about the Watershed Fund and about similar projects across Montana, contact MWCC Watershed Programs Coordinator Terri Nichols at (406) 475-1420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Project supports agricultural water use efficiency to reduce the amount of water withdrawn from surface or groundwater sources.