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Success Story

Fighting the Elements

Saline seep is a problem in the Dane valley. Local producers are cooperating to restore and protect the land.
Publish Date
Alfalfa plant pulled up so that long taproot can be shown.

The naturally salty soil in an area of Roosevelt County has presented an opportunity for farmers to adapt and change their conventional methods. NRCS Montana has assisted landowners in the area with salinity control that meets producer goals and is sustainable for the long-term.

Watch the story in: Conservation for the Future: Fighting Saline Seep in the Dane Valley, Roosevelt County, MT

Soil is a conduit. It carries the things that sustain life, both literally and figuratively. Water, nutrients, and minerals, but also family, purpose, and practices.

And sometimes, the unforeseen consequences of those practices.

“The grandparents, they went through the drought and the Dust Bowl in the thirties,” Tom Beck remembers as he stands on his patch of land in eastern Montana. “That was kind of pounded into me as a kid, helping on the farm. There are things you need to do and there’s things that I’ve figured out you shouldn’t do, so I carry those with me.”

The soil in this area of Roosevelt County, Montana is naturally high in salt content. Excess salts near a plant’s roots can harm its growth because it limits the amount of water those roots are able to take in. The movement of water within the soil can create areas of unequal salt concentrations, leading to large areas of land becoming inhospitable to planting. 

This is a phenomenon called saline seep, and some of the ways farmers learned to cope with the devastation of the Dust Bowl have exacerbated the situation. “We fixed the problem and inadvertently created another one,” says Beck.

The Problem of Water

“A crop summer fallow system where you grow a grain crop one year and the following year is a fallow year in which that ground doesn’t grow anything,” is one of the common practices that amplifies the effects of saline seep, explains Andy Johnsrud, Supervisory District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“The theory of that was to save water for the following year’s crop,” Johnsrud says. “Growing a wheat crop basically every other year, you’re only growing something in that soil for about three months out of a 24-month period and you’re leaving all that extra water to infiltrate, move, and pour out of a seep.” 

In a landscape like the one here in the Dane Valley, the problem can become even more acute. The rolling hills create a number of recharge areas, high points where water infiltrates the soil until it reaches an impermeable layer, and discharge areas, lower points where that water flows to, until it saturates the soil and seeps out.

“When we get excess water that the crops and the cropping system can’t use, that excess water percolates through that soil, hits that impermeable layer, and the salts within that are dissolved and carried with the water down to the discharge area…the water evaporates and leaves the salt on top,” Johnsrud explains. 

“That’s when you get plants that don’t grow as well as they should because they’re salt-impacted.”

A Community Approach

For farmers and landowners like Tom Beck, addressing saline seep takes a communal effort, involving both neighbors and outside agencies, like NRCS and Montana Salinity Control Association. Beck previously worked for the NRCS, where he first learned about saline seep. He’s since retired and now is on the other end of the relationship between producers and NRCS.

“In my years with NRCS here in Roosevelt County, we’ve helped guys go away from the crop fallow system and into flex cropping and re-cropping, introduced pulse crops, peas, lentils, chickpeas, that kind of thing,” says Beck. “It’s changed dramatically.”

“My grandfathers wouldn’t know this,” he laughs. “They wouldn’t know this at all.”

To adapt to environmental challenges, though, even the people who’ve spent the most time farming here have learned to change their methods.

“I’ve lived here going on almost 80 years,” says Floyd Johnson, who lives and farms in the nearby town of Froid. His grandparents homesteaded in the area in the 1800s, and the land was inherited by his father and then by Johnson himself. While his sons are taking over operations, Johnson is still involved and committed to taking proactive steps to protect the land.

“If you’re going to try to maintain your production and keep the land in production, you have to address the problem,” says Johnson.

“My first project with [NRCS],” Johnson recalls, “about 50 to 60 acres had turned non-productive. The discharge area had spread out into that area, that corridor.”

The project Johnson undertook is one that NRCS and the Montana Salinity Control Association cooperated on in collaboration with local producers, including Beck, beginning in the 1990s. The Dane Valley saline seep project aimed to the recharge and discharge areas of saline seeps, monitor the areas, and use cropping practices to reduce the saline seep areas.

“The idea behind addressing a saline seep is to plant the recharge area to perennial vegetation, to use that water before it comes out in the discharge area,” says Johnsrud. 

A Plant-Based Solution

One plant has been particularly useful in combatting saline seep: alfalfa. 

“Alfalfa is the primary tool to dry down a saline seep recharge and discharge area,” says Beck. “It starts in the spring, it lasts into the fall a ways, it roots very deep, and it takes a lot of water.”

“The alfalfa has enough root system to it that it can utilize that water and stop it from getting to that discharge area,” agrees Johnson. “That’s the whole trick to it, to stop that water from getting there in the first place.”

Planting perennials is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to salinity control. Farmers don’t want alfalfa every year as it is not normally as profitable as their traditional crops. They carefully plan each year’s crops to optimize their water use and profitability.
Monitoring and planning are both vital tools when it comes to maintaining soil health here. The farmers’ partnerships with NRCS and Montana Salinity Control Association play a major role in helping them build the infrastructure for monitoring, stay on top of their schedules, and work out planting plans for the years to come.

“We help producers get saline seep monitoring wells installed, and then the producers go out and measure generally twice a year—once in the summer and once in the fall—and measure the depth to groundwater at the bottom of that well,” says Johnsrud. “They’re monitoring that to tell if the groundwater moves up or moves down. We want to use as much of that water as we can.”

NRCS helped not only with the technical assistance with these wells, but also in assisting with the financial cost of installing them through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“They did all the drilling at no cost basically to the landowner,” Johnson says of the Montana Salinity Control Association. “Then they identified—and pretty well know from experience—where to put them to determine where the water is coming from.”

“They’ve been real good, I’ve enjoyed working with them. It’s been basically the local people that we deal with so they know what they’re dealing with and they encourage people to pursue these programs. To me, it’s been an excellent program.”

“When Texas was in a drought, I was able to sell hay into Texas, so it benefits everybody,” says Johnson.

A Group Project

Cooperation is key here, especially when one producer’s discharge area is fed by a recharge are on someone else’s land. “The discharge area, with the weed patch and the white spots, that’s what gets people excited,” says Beck. “But that’s a symptom. The problem is upslope. And a lot of times it’s up on the neighbor.”

But even though the problem often lies on a neighbor’s property, Beck says that, in a way, the solution lies there too.

“That’s why this group project was so effective. Everybody perceived the problem and came in and we got things going at the local office with the conservation district, NRCS, and the salinity control.”

“Farmers and ranchers are true stewards of the land,” says Johnsrud. “They’re doing all that they can to make sure that land produces, is sustainable, and is passed down to the next generation.”

Like their parents and grandparents before them, the farmers and ranchers here in this corner of Montana are embedding these practices within the land, in the hopes that their children will inherit healthier soil and all that it carries with it.

More Information

To learn more about NRCS conservation assistance, please visit your local service center or NRCS - Montana.

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