Crow Irrigation Project Responses

Below are comments submitted by three of our members in regards to the proposed Crow irrigation project. The project would fix many of the old and dilapidated canal structures.  If done right this project could help reduce the amount of harmful chemicals and other foreign substances from reaching the river and improve overall water quality.

From Doug Haacke:

February 14, 2014
Bureau of Reclamation
Attn: Crow Water Projects (GP-4000)
P.O. Box 36900
Billings, MT 59107-6900
Attn: Vern LaFontaine

Mr. LaFontaine:

The Bighorn River in Montana is one of the state’s most valued resources. Throughout its long and winding journey to the confluence with the Yellowstone river, mostly through tribal lands and Big Horn county (the third poorest county in the United States), it’s clear, cold water supports two major economies and a number of minor ones.
Agriculture is certainly one of those major economies. The Crow Irrigation Project’s Soap Creek canal alone irrigates nearly 50,000 acres of prime agricultural land from which over 40 million dollars in yield is realized.
Recreational use of the Bighorn River is the other major economy, and not surprisingly, even larger than agriculture, generating just over 50 million dollars and more when considering secondary tourism interests.
The Crow Irrigation Project intends to provide badly needed rehabilitation work that will not only return canal and irrigation operations to capacity, but will have the additional benefit of being more efficient in that operation. River interests strongly favor efficiencies such as this because less water will need to be diverted from its natural course for irrigation. This, in fact, benefits both economies.
As you well know, the responsibilities of the Project, its partners and its stakeholders do not end once the water reaches irrigated fields. River interests have a growing concern regarding the quality of the water being returned to the system. Please take a moment and consider these two important issues that are concerns after the water has reached the irrigated fields.

In the Bighorn basin, sediments in irrigation return flows arise mostly from erosion in furrows during irrigation, and from higher than normal bank erosion due to the nature of the soil in certain watersheds (Soap Creek being the worse). Reducing both erosion and runoff would dramatically the sediment in return flows. Sediment concentrations from irrigation returns along the Bighorn are higher than normal, and are often more than several thousands ppm.

At present, the quality of the water being returned is grossly less than desirable. Besides being laden with sediment and filled with a cornucopia of nutrients unsuitable to riparian habitats, it is turbid, often opaque in clarity, smelly and warmed enough to be detrimental, and occasionally fatal, to the river fishery and aquatic insects. Compounding this issue, the turbidity of the water causes it to warm more rapidly on hot days, and the high nutrient content promotes unnatural aquatic plant growth, both which serve to lower dissolved oxygen which is detrimental to all aerobic life in the river.
Technologies exists that can reduce soil and bank erosion, and reduce sediment content in return flows as well as clean, de-nutrify and cool those same return flows. We respectfully ask that the Project encourage its partners and stakeholders to follow these proven guidelines:

1) Eliminate or reduce irrigation return flows, when conditions permit, using irrigation with little or no runoff, and encourage the use of pivots.
2) Control furrow stream size and shorten run lengths whenever possible, and ensure modern and proper water measuring equipment is used.
3) Control irrigation duration when possible, and/or, implement alternate furrow row irrigation.
4) Control irrigation tail water by assuring that it flows slowly enough that sediment settles before it leaves the field.
5) Utilize sediment retention basins to remove sediment from return flows.
6) Utilize natural or construct artificial concentrated wetlands to de-nutrify and cool irrigation returns.
In closing, I represent the river interests of the Bighorn River Alliance, Magic City Fly Fishers (Trout Unlimited Chapter 582) and Montana Trout Unlimited, and the Friends of the Bighorn River. Combined, these are the thousands of people who live and work and recreate on the Bighorn River, one of Montana’s most valued treasures, and one of the top three trout streams in the world.
We support the work of the Crow Irrigation Project, and are happy to offer our assistance and input whenever and wherever needed. We applaud your desire to provide sound conservation effort and sincerely hope your commitment to clear, cold water in the Bighorn River will prove to be as strong as ours.

We look forward to working with you closely in the coming months.


Doug Haacke
Montana Trout Unlimited, Chair
Magic City Fly Fishers, #582, Director
Bighorn River Alliance, Advisory Board
Friends of the Bighorn River, founder

From Zoe Opie:

Vernon La Fontaine
Dan Stremcha
Titus Takes Gun

Crow Irrigation Project


Thank you for soliciting my input on the proposed rehabilitation project. If we can get all of us working together this can be a win, win situation for all parties involved. I will be framing my response referencing specifically issues pertaining to the Big Horn River, water and property issues.

As you are aware The Big Horn River is one of the top fisheries in the United States. It is imperative that nothing is done to harm this environment and use the tools at your disposal to enhance it. Specifically, we need to work closely with the BOR and make sure that the Operating Criteria allows for adequate water flows to not only service the canal, but also maintain a minimum 2500 CFS to the river.

Currently irrigation returns are flowing directly back into the river. This is creating two distinct environmental issues. The bank erosion caused by the uninhibited water flows is substantial. Particularly prominent at Soap Creek, The Big Horn Access and where the canal water returns to the river near the Two Leggings Bridge. The irrigation returns not only contain large amounts of eroded silt, but are also fertilizers and pesticides that are used on the crops. All of these issues can be controlled or eliminated by proper filtration of irrigation returns.

Property owners along the canal have other specific concerns. I am one of these land owners. The major concern is how the repair and enhancement will be done and what impact it will have on our property. There are several homes and businesses built adjacent to the Big Horn Canal. The need to work co-operatively with these land owners is vital. The land owners are aware and agree that access to the canal through their property is vital and actually a point of law. No one wants to deny access, but we are deeply concerned about damage to our property and businesses. Past maintenance efforts have been done with willful disregard to the effects of the adjacent land. I could gladly produce pictures of the damage, but it is time to look forward, not back.

The third issue at hand is how the proposed hydroelectric plant at Afterbay and canal reconstruction will affect the Afterbay ramp access. As I know you are aware, the angling business is, at last review, responsible for 50 million plus revenue dollars to Montana. We need to be sure we continue to enhance this valuable resource, not hinder its growth.

Thank you for your consideration of the above issues.

Zoe Opie
Big Horn River Alliance

Zoe and Dave Opie
Absaraka Cabins
528 Fishing Bear Road
Fort Smith, MT 59035
From Dennis Fischer:

To Whom it may concern –

I would like an opportunity to comment on the Crow Irrigation Project.

The irrigation returns to the Bighorn River bring sediment and chemicals into the river that are very harmful.

This project should include plans to reduce or eliminate the irrigation runoff!

I have included an article about this subject below.

This Year’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Could Be the Biggest on Record:


Dennis Fischer
Fort Smith, MT


One thought on “Crow Irrigation Project Responses

  1. Bill Bocks says:

    I have read and agree with all above responses.we at the au sable in michigan are having similar issues of detriment to the river due to unwanted and downright harmful chemicals going into the river affecting a wide array of aquatic insects. Montana,please take this time to study,research and most of all protect a truly wnderfulresource. Thank you all for doing the right thing.protect the river Dr

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