College of Arts and Sciences
research – willow creek watershed

The Willow Creek Watershed in the eastern Tobacco Root Mountains is an outdoor laboratory for teaching, research, and applied investigations. The setting is the centerpiece of the Department of Geological Sciences' field environmental programs in Montana, and provides a framework for cooperation and benefit among students, university researchers, county, state and federal agencies, and local ranchers. The towns of Pony and Harrison are located within the watershed in Madison County, Montana. This drainage basin was chosen because of:

  • its proximity to the Field Station, and ready road access
  • manageable size (about 160 square miles)
  • the range of micro-environments with distinct ecosystems and land usage, ranging from alpine tundra to steppe prairies
  • the presence of a large surface reservoir (Harrison Lake)
  • diverse bedrock types, ranging from glacial deposits underlain by crystalline bedrock to thick unconsolidated sediments containing multiple aquifers



Key elements of the Demonstration Watershed include:

  • Geological framework investigations, which are designed to understand the sedimentologic and hydrogeologic characteristics of the unconsolidated basin fill. These investigations consist of field mapping of surface exposures, analyses of drill cores and field determination of aquifer properties, such as hydraulic conductivity and storativity, and non-invasive geophysical surveys. IU graduate student Bill Elliott accomplished some of this work as part of his Master's thesis.
  • Hydrologic monitoring, which involves deployment of electronic instruments for continuous measurements of water levels in aquifers, stream stages, micrometeorological conditions (such as wind profiles, humidity and temperature gradients, solar and terrestrial radiation, etc.), and snowmelt. Sally Letsinger's IU PhD work consisted of installation of many such instruments, and developed the data handling capabilites necessary to study their data. Descriptions of individual instrumented sites are accessible from the Willow Creek Demonstration Watershed Map.
  • Computer modelling, which will implement algorithms for simulating snowmelt in rugged terrain, streamflow routing, and groundwater flow in heterogeneous porous media.
  • Other studies that may develop from teaching projects (e.g., stream assessments, one of which was conducted by IU student Shawn Naylor in 1999), new questions (IU student Ralph Milliken studied snow geochemistry to investigate possible relationships with orography, or mountain geometry), and ranchers' needs (expanding this web site to provide for interactivity and automatic data uploading, which became available in Summer 2001).

Daily stream flow reports are only available during the "water year," April 1 to October 1. The sensors are removed from the stream gauges during winter to prevent freezing.

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Benefits to the local community, the State of Montana, and the University and Field Station community include:

  • A high-quality data base for use by ranchers and agencies in making decisions about short-term land and water use.
  • A variety of data, expertise, and academic resources for long-term planning related to surface water irrigation and increased ground water use.
  • Input of substantial financial and educational resources to local communities.
  • Increased access to expert professionals for discussion and education concerning practical environmental issues involving geology and hydrology.
  • A field setting around which a cutting-edge curriculum in environmental sciences can be developed, including access to equipment and data as well as first-hand experience in applied hydrogeological and environmental issues.
  • The establishment of a model for successful integration of teaching and research missions, using combined field, laboratory, computer, and theoretical approaches.
  • Increased goodwill among all the participants in projects associated with the Willow Creek Demonstration Watershed