By Tim Leeds
A plan is being reviewed to restore the quality of water in Big Sandy Creek.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality released a report in December evaluating the quality of the creek and proposing actions by landowners to restore quality where it is a problem.
"The intent of this program is to ultimately restore the water quality," said Ron Steg, watershed program manager for DEQ.
Steg said the level of sediment and variations in temperature don't seem to be a problem in Big Sandy Creek, but the level of salinity is at time more than twice the acceptable levels. The level of salinity varies with the time of year and the level of water in the creek. The highest concentration of saline tends to occur when the water level is lowest, Steg said.
The report says the probable cause of the contamination is farming practices in the area of the creek. Practices that increase the moisture in the soil can bring dissolved salts to the surface, increasing the concentration of the salts there. The salts can directly enter a stream or can be washed into a stream by runoff.
Steg said the high level of salinity is can affect plants and animals in the creek and vegetation near the creek. That can affect livestock that eats the vegetation, he said. Using water from the creek to irrigate could also affect crops.
Steg said the affect on crops would vary depending on a number of factors, like the soil type where the irrigation occurs.
The level of salinity hasn't hurt the quality of water Havre draws from the Milk River for the city's water supply, Stegg said. Big Sandy Creek flows into the Milk River a few miles west of Havre.
The plan recommends that farmers abutting Big Sandy Creek adopt a five- to 10-year rotation between crops and haying or grazing, place those areas into the Conservation Reserve Program, or switch from crop and fallow rotations to annual or flex cropping.
Steg said the program is voluntary and the DEQ relies on working with local landowners and people with interests in the area to implement the plan. The report states that landowners who want to participate in practices to reduce the problem in the creek or to stabilize the creek bank may be able to obtain cost-share grant funds to help pay the expense.
The Montana Environmental Quality Act and the federal Clean Water Act require the DEQ to analyze streams and bodies of water to determine levels of pollutants, sediment and temperature variation. Big Sandy Creek was listed as a stream with higher than acceptable problems on the 1996 federal list of impaired streams. It was not listed in 2000 because of a lack of data.
The DEQ report states that sediment and temperature variation are within acceptable limits, but the average amount of dissolved solids, salinity and sulfates are potential problems. Some potential sediment problems have been identified, like bank erosion.
The document states that DEQ will monitor salinity and sediment in the creek. If water quality standards are not met within five years, DEQ will evaluate the progress and determine whether a new or improved practice of conservation is required, additional time is needed for the goal to be met, or if revisions in the analysis are required
For more information, contact Steg at 406-444-7423 or Carole Mackin, water quality specialist, at 406-444-7425.
On the Net: Department of Environmental Quality Big Sandy Creek proposal (pdf format): http://deq.state.mt.us/ppa/rpp/watershed/TMDLDrafts/BigSandy.pdf