By Tim Leeds
Local groups may soon have a better grasp on what they have in the Milk River Valley and what is needed.
The Milk River International Alliance is planning to conduct a rapid aerial assessment of the valley, from Fresno Reservoir to its confluence with the Missouri River, to find out what resources and what problems exist in the river valley.
A lot of demands are being put on the river, from supplying drinking water to fishing to irrigation, said Jim Thompson, project coordinator for the alliance at Fort Peck.
"We know the Milk River is the lifeline of the Hi-Line," he said. "The assessment is like a physical. We're trying to get her vital signs. The Milk, she's quite a gal. We don't want her to have a nervous breakdown."
The Milk River International Alliance was formed about three years ago to provide guidance on watershed management for the entire river, which starts in Montana, then flows into Canada and back into Montana on its 700-mile course.
"What we're actually doing is taking an aerial photo of the river plain, looking at whatever's in that aerial photo. I kind of look at this as a first step in getting information for management purposes," Thompson said.
The survey will provide information about problems like erosion or saline seep. If a problem arises, such as too much sediment in the river, the people managing the river will know where the problem is probably coming from and can solve it, Thompson said.
"The more information you have the better decisions you can make," he said.
Having an enviromental assessment also makes it easier when seeking federal grants, he added, as does having a larger group planning and asking for money.
"If we can get everybody together and going off the same sheet of music, it's easier to secure funds if you have a coalition of several counties," Thompson said.
The alliance's purpose is to supply the information to the groups managing the areas, not to make decisions itself, Thompson added. The results of the assessment will be available to the conservation and irrigation districts, and local, state and federal governments.
The alliance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service are meeting with groups along the river to explain the purpose of the assessment and find support for doing it.
Dale Krause of the NRCS office in Fort Benton said the county conservation districts have been supportive so far, and now the group needs another meeting with the Joint Board of Control of the seven irrigation districts along the river to further explain the process and what it would provide.
Krause hopes the survey, which would take about a week to conduct, will start sometime in July. NRCS will oversee the survey, using a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter. The original plan was to begin in June, but many groups in the area were too busy with other projects to coordinate meetings, he said.
"They're trying to get an understanding because it's such a new concept," he said.
Similar aerial assessments have been used on sevaral Montana watershed areas, including the Yellowstone River and Big Sandy and Box Elder creeks.
Using NRCS and DNRC services will save local groups a large amount of money, he said. If the local conservation districts or organizations tried to hire consultants and specialists on their own, it would be very costly, he said.
Krause said DNRC, NRCS and the Bureau of Reclamation, along with other organizations, provide technical assistance to the alliance.
For more information about the proposed survey, contact your local conservation district office, Thompson at 367-5405 or Krause at 622-5627 ext. 117.