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By Maria Mantas
Swan Valley Connections 

Water Quality in the Swan Valley – It Takes Work!


Photo provided.

The current road system in the Swan Valley.

As residents of the Swan Valley, most of us agree there is one thing we all value in our landscape, water. Most people living here draw their drinking water from wells, which people brag about being "the best tasting well water anywhere." You can't walk through the woods without eventually running into one of Swan Valley's thousands of wetlands which attract dozens of wildlife and bird species. There are hundreds of miles of streams, wild and unimpeded, supporting populations of westslope cutthroat and bull trout as well as many other native aquatic species.

The Swan watershed, however, is not without its problems related to water quality. Unfortunately, the surge of forest road building in the 1980s and 1990s increased the amount of road fines (or ground up rock from road surfaces) to streams in the watershed, which in turn increased suspended sediments in the water. These sediments eventually traveled downriver ending up in Swan Lake.

As a result, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) listed Swan Lake as an "Impaired Water Body" due, in part, to "increased sediment loading."

When Best Management Practices (BMPs) are in place, meaning roads are properly built and maintained, we have few problems. But even the best constructed dirt or gravel road can contribute sediment to streams, especially during the wet rainy months of spring and fall.

Think of a road like the roof on your house. When built properly, a good roof can keep water from seeping into your attic for many years. But over time, the shingles and wood get old and degrade, allowing water to leak through. Once that happens, mold grows and the trusses start to rot and because you didn't maintain your roof at the first signs of leakage you now must replace the entire thing.

Roads are very similar! A heavily used road must be graded and sloped regularly to allow water to drain properly. Culverts and other drainage features must be cleaned out periodically to keep water moving where it's supposed to go. But the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) have more than 500 miles of forest roads to care for in the Swan Watershed; far more than their shrinking budgets can regularly maintain. In time a number of these roads start to fail and more and more sediment reaches the creeks.

In an effort to help, Swan Valley Connections (formerly Swan Ecosystem Center) has secured grant funding from DEQ to assist the USFS and DNRC with this enormous workload. Over the last ten years, more than $300,000 from six separate EPA funded grants has been channeled to these agencies to inventory roads, engineer solutions, replace culverts and reseed road banks to stabilize soil. These actions keep roads functioning properly and reduce fine sediments to streams. All roads need to be maintained, even closed roads, because they are subject to erosion as well.

This year, Swan Valley Connections and DNRC pitched a proposal to DEQ to help fund repairs and improvements on six roads in the lower Swan Valley. Five of these projects were fully funded. These roads are located in the Goat, Squeezer, Whitetail and Woodward drainages.

Photo provided.

A badly eroded forest road on the Swan River State Forest which will be repaired as part of the Lower Swan Valley Road Restoration Project.

All restoration projects over the last ten years (ranging from maintenance actions such as grading surfaces and cleaning culverts, to major watershed efforts like the USFS "Chilly-James Restoration Project") are moving the Swan Watershed toward improved water quality. Through cooperative efforts of the "Water Quality Technical Advisory Group" consisting of people from the USFS, DNRC, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), DEQ, Swan Lakers, Swan Valley Connections and other interested citizens, a great deal of work has been accomplished. Our goal is to keep up with this maintenance and restoration work so everyone can continue to enjoy great water quality and eventually remove Swan Lake from the DEQ list.

A component of these grants from DEQ must be used for community outreach and education. SVC plans to host field trips and programs to keep you abreast of their current effort "The Lower Swan Valley Watershed Restoration Project."

If you are interested in learning more about these projects or attending field trips to visit project areas, contact Swan Valley Connections, 406-754-3137, email or visit


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