Along Highway 93, exaggerated cliffs and rocks walls fall away to wide open spaces and green rolling hills as you turn onto the East Fork Road.
Here, Cameron Creek flows down from the Sapphire Mountains and through a historic ranching community before reaching the East Fork of the Bitterroot River.
Cameron Creek plays a vital role in supporting irrigation and providing critical habitat for fish and wildlife. These are just a couple of reasons why a local nonprofit has a special interest in the water quality of this creek.
In 2013, the Bitter Root Water Forum (BRWF), a watershed group working for clean water in the Bitterroot Valley, worked with landowners to complete two restoration projects restoring native plants along 1.2 miles of Cameron Creek, one of the warmest streams entering the Bitterroot River.
Warm waters can cause unfavorable conditions for fish populations, particularly for the cold-water loving trout the Bitterroot is known for.
One way to help combat rising temperatures is by adding streamside plants that help shade the stream and provide fish habitat. BRWF and dozens of volunteers restored shade and habitat by planting over 2,000 willows and native nursery plants along the creek along with coir wattles, bundles of coconut fibers that help naturally stabilize eroding banks.
Three years later, BRWF continues to visit Cameron Creek every summer to continue working on the project.
“Project installation is complete but there’s still a lot of work to do year after year to ensure long term project success,” said Heather Barber, executive director of BRWF. “Young plants grow slowly and are sensitive to many elements like drought and animal browse.”
Through maintenance and monitoring BRWF makes sure that each of their projects has the best chance for survival. Photo monitoring and plant counts show where plantings are doing well and which areas need extra attention in the form of watering or weed removal.
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Currently, BRWF provides active stewardship on seven revegetation projects on Rye Creek, Cameron Creek, and the East Fork of the Bitterroot River.
Each of these streams are considered impaired by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for issues like too high temperature or sediment overloading. Revegetation puts native plants back in the ground to reduce bank erosion, provide shade for fisheries, enhance wildlife habitat, and filter runoff entering the streams from highways or farmed fields.
“The work is never really done,”said Katie Vennie, BRWF Programs Assistant. “There are weed mats to remove, browse protectors to fix, thousands of plants to account for, plus this year we’re adding more plants to Cameron Creek to strengthen our project there”
To assist with the maintenance and monitoring these projects need annually, BRWF formed a Watershed Enhancement Team (WET). Made up of volunteers interested in conservation and water resources, this group of helps BRWF with stewardship from late spring through early fall.
“Our team is amazing,” Vennie said.. “By the end of October they will have generously given over 65 hours of time to BRWF, and really to our community. We appreciate all their hard work and positivity. They make the success of these projects possible.”
This October BRWF and the Watershed Enhancement Team will put the last touches of seasonal maintenance on Cameron Creek by adding willow fascine structures to the existing project.
These fascines are bundles of willow cuttings placed along banks to create a roughness that helps slow down stream flow. Slowing streamflow allows sediment to drop out and be deposited creating microsites where willows can be established to help shade and stabilize the banks. This past September WET also added browse protectors to this site to help reduce stress on the plants from wildlife browse.
“Working for clean water never ends, even when the shovels stop digging and the new plants are in the ground. In fact, taking care of our past projects is just as important as implementing new ones,” Barber said. “There’s always work being done behind the scenes to ensure long term success and quality results.”