Carolyn Prescott and Heather Barber of the Bitterroot Water Forum spread native grass seed on a newly completed bioengineered bank stabilization project on Rye Creek in this file photo

In 1993, a handful of women started talking about the things that make the Bitterroot Valley a special place to live.

And the more they talked, the more the subject of water seemed to always to come up.

This group decided back then they didn’t know nearly enough about the resource that makes virtually everything possible in a valley that was once covered mostly by sagebrush.

“So they decided to get together to learn more and find answers to their questions,” said Bitter Root Water Forum Executive Director Heather Barber. “They began bringing in speakers who offered them their insights and they reached out to the community to learn more.”

From those first informal visits and through the informational meetings that followed, the organization slowly took root and grew.

Today, the Bitter Root Water Forum is taking a lead role in not only providing important information to the public about the valley’s water resource, it’s putting boots on the ground to accomplish a variety of projects that will protect that resource for future generations.

The forum’s work is getting noticed far and wide.

Recently, the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society honored the non-profit with its 2016 Organization of the Year award.

“Your founders wanted to promote the protection and restoration of our water resources and help inform citizens of the many facets that support a healthy, functioning watershed,” the award read. “You have accomplished this task by focusing on education and on the ground restoration.”

The work comes through events like the seventh grade Earth Stewardship Program that has given 1,200 youngsters the opportunity to work alongside natural resource professionala to learn about trout in a natural setting.

Riverfest Days brings together nearly 450 community partners every summer. Another field trip with Future Farmers of America chapters offers future irrigators a chance to learn about the complicated irrigation system in the Bitterroot Valley. And the forum works directly with local Realtors to teach a course on water rights.

Restoration efforts have also been remarkably successful.

The forum led the effort to remove or restore 20 miles of road and repair 23 stream crossinga in the Sleeping Child and Rye creek drainages. Bank stabilization projects have been accomplished on both the East Fork of the Bitterroot River and stream reaches along Cameron, Rye and Threemile creeks.

That’s not to mention the 1,580 pounds of trash that volunteers have plucked from the Bitterroot River during the annual river clean-up sponsored by the forum.

This year, the forum has two full-time employees and an AmeriCorps member and has recently opened up a storefront office just a few doors down from the Bitter Root Land Trust Office at 178 S. 2nd St. in Hamilton.

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“Your small non-profit is doing a lot of outstanding work in the Bitterroot River drainage,” said Adam Sepulveda of the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.

Barber said it was nice to be honored.

“It was a nice surprise to us,” Barber said. “We’re not that typical group focused just only on fish issues. We try to work with all water users. It’s nice to have that work acknowledged.”

The forum moved into its new office space just after Memorial Day. Barber hopes that will lead to additional opportunity for outreach to the community.

“We felt it was really important to be accessible,” she said. “We want to be the place where people come when they have questions or need advice on issues facing the watershed.”

The public has always played a pivotal role in the forum’s success. Nearly all of the stream restoration work has been accomplished by dedicated volunteers who spend long hours planting and then caring for new vegetation along the stream banks.

“We wouldn’t be here without all the volunteers who have stepped forward to help over the years,” Barber said. “We have also worked with a number of really good local contractors. We always hire people from around the Bitterroot Valley.”

Many of the volunteers come back year after year to lend their help on new projects and ensure that old ones thrive.

This year, the forum was able to obtain a couple of water pumps that will help keep vegetation planted earlier along stream banks alive.

“It will be a lot more effective than the bucket brigades we’ve used in the past,” she said.

Barber said the forum’s plans call for continuing its focus on serving the community in meaningful ways.

“We want to continue to make new connections with the people who live here,” she said. “We’re looking now to make a strong connection with the ag community and find ways that we can help them in the future.

“We’re not simply an organization that focuses on fish, birds or any one segment,” Barber said. “We want to work for every water user in the valley. We want to make sure we work closely with them for their future needs.”

Barber hopes the new location will make that easier for people.

“I’m hoping that people will lean in and say hello as they walk by,” she said.