Ryegate, MT, producer Sterling Zeier knew he had a problem. Careless Creek, which zig-zags through his property, was carrying increased water flows for irrigation downstream and creating 10- to 15-ft. vertical cut banks along the way.

Tired of watching his fences and hayland erode into Careless Creek, Zeier decided something must be done. After several attempts to get assistance from various natural resource agencies, a locally led watershed planning approach was taken.

Careless Creek was designated as a priority area for the Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). The project involves five landowners (including Zeier and state lands) and garnered local, state and federal funds to cost-share improvement practices on the land.

The first step was to get irrigation release flows from the upstream reservoir limited. Careless Creek, which has natural average flows of 2-26 cfs (cubic feet per second), was handling flows released from the reservoir up to 260 cfs.

'That's why it's been a wreck,' says Zeier. He estimates at those excessive flows the bank was eroding at a minimum of two feet a year.

Presently, irrigation flows have been voluntarily reduced by the water users to less than 100 cfs in Careless Creek, and Barber Canal nearby is being upgraded to handle the excess irrigation flows.

With limited flows, Zeier and neighboring landowners turned to trees, instead of the traditional rock and cement, to stabilize the streambanks along their property.

'In just two years we've seen improvement,' Zeier says.

Streambank Protectors Called tree revetments, ponderosa pine -- cut from state land nearby -- were positioned on either side of the creek to protect critical locations -- such as banks that were cutting along fences and hay fields.

With the banks sloped, the trees were anchored into the streambank with the upper-portion of the branched tree placed diagonally into the stream to catch silt deposition and prevent further bank erosion.

Depending on creek flow, trees were spaced 50 ft. apart with closer placement in tight corners or bends.

The purpose of the tree revetments is to get the banks stabilized quickly, to allow grass and willows to begin establishment of a root mass which holds the soil in place.

Vickie Sellers, a rangeland management specialist in the Harlowton, MT, NRCS field office refers to it as 'bioengineering.'

'Tree revetments are short term,' says Sellers, who was involved with the Careless Creek Watershed EQIP project. 'They trap sediment and allow willows and grass to get established, which is really what we want in the long term.'

Tree revetments are also less expensive than rock and cement. Trees used for the revetments in the Careless Creek project were donated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources from state land nearby that was included in the restoration project. But Zeier estimates that even with the cost of trees factored in, this type of restoration costs about $10/ft. (including bank sloping, grass seeding, tree revetments). Usually restoration costs twice that, he says.

Once the tree revetments were in place, grass was seeded immediately. A wetland grass mix and upland grass mix were used for reclamation.

'Initially, before seeding the grass we tried smoothing the seedbed on the streambank. But, due to the soil type and rain, this flat surface allowed the seed to be washed away. We've learned to leave the area rough, and natural weathering makes pockets for the seed to collect in and grow,' says Sellers.

Sellers says either an early spring planting or a dormant seeding in the fall is suitable for grass seeding.

Willow sprigs were then planted in the spring, before the grass breaks dormancy. Sprigs were planted a foot apart up and down the bank. Sellers says, 'On this creek, willows will make the whole project a success.

'The willow roots hold the soil on the streambank together, which gives grass and shrubs a chance to establish and prevent mass sloughing into the stream. If the willows don't establish within the first five years, it makes me uncomfortable about the creek banks' stability,' she says.

With last year's high spring runoff raising the usually small Careless Creek 6 to 8 ft., the restoration was tested and proved to be effective. The restored banks held through a high flood event with just one tree revetment needing to be replaced out of 4,100 ft. restored, says Sellers.

Sellers says tree revetments can work in other creeks, especially on low velocity streams. Juniper and pine work best in this area because of their availability and ability to trap sediment and deflect water flows, she says.

More Improvements While 18,000 ft. along Careless Creek have been restored using tree revetments, other land improvements have been made as well through the EQIP project. With cost-share money from EQIP, Zeier has developed off-site water and plans to put in crossfences. He believes both are important to revitalizing the stream.

The reduced flows from the reservoir have also allowed for sloughing and self-healing with natural vegetation, Sellers says. Riparian fencing, off-site watering and hand-sprigging willows on these sites has allowed grass to re-establish and help stabilize the banks, she says.

Nearly $200,000 later, the banks are slowly being restored, and wildlife habitat, water quality and fish populations have all improved. And, perhaps most importantly, the relationship between the landowners and natural resource agencies has also improved.

'Without a locally led watershed approach along with cost-share and the government programs, this situation could easily have been in a court situation,' says Sellers.

'Initially, the landowners wanted 100% funding to fix what they have lost on the riparian area due to excessive irrigation waters being released. By working together they've seen how it's come together and have been putting in some of their own dollars to fund these projects. They've found they can work with government agencies to accomplish their goals. This project has become a model for other watersheds,' says Sellers.

The Careless Creek project will continue to receive cost-share funds for future improvements and monitoring progress. A youth education program has also been developed to provide an outdoor classroom for local students.

For more information about the EQIP program contact your local NRCS office.