DEER LODGE - Now seems like an odd time to be adding more water to the Clark Fork River drainage, what with local creeks having 100-year floods around the Deer Lodge Valley this spring.
But now is when the long-range planning has to be finalized for a $100 million state Natural Resource Damage Program fund to restore the upper Clark Fork River drainage, according to Clark Fork Coalition director Karen Knudsen. On Wednesday, while Deer Lodge residents double-checked their sandbags after last week's midtown flood, Knudsen and Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock took an aerial tour of the area to talk about increasing future flows.
"What's going to glue all these disparate pieces together is restoration of the tributary creeks in the upper Clark Fork," Knudsen said. "That will be the key to overall long-term success of the watershed recovery."
The NRDP money comes from the state's court settlement with the mining companies that dumped millions of tons of contaminated tailings in Silver Bow and Warm Springs creeks during the 20th century. Over the years, those heavy-metal laden soils have flushed into the Clark Fork, killing fish, killing vegetation along riverbanks and poisoning drinking water aquifers.
Lots of work has already been done. As Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon banked around the Deer Lodge Valley, NRDP Advisory Council member and Granite County Commissioner Maureen Connor pointed out many of the new landmarks from the air. Millions of dollars have already been spent removing toxic materials from Silver Bow Creek out of Butte and Warm Springs Creek by Anaconda.
But some parts were too ruined to restore. So the settlement also allows spending on new public lands to replace the lost habitat. They ranged from the new public campground at Stuart Mill Bay on Georgetown Lake to the Dutchman wetlands restoration behind Galen State Hospital and public fishing accesses at Parasini Ponds.
Those projects were all completed on the NRDP's annual grant process. Last year, the NRDP's advisory council proposed switching from annual project grants to multi-year projects, which would let state and local agencies do more comprehensive work in the drainage. That plan is still awaiting Gov. Brian Schweitzer's approval.
"The flooding is where I'm focused right now," Connor said after the flight. "It's obvious from the air, that the better shape the floodplain's in, the better it is for handling these kind of events. In places where the floodplain is functioning well, it looks very different from other spots."
The Ecoflight tour crossed over the reach of the Clark Fork between Warm Springs Ponds and the Racetrack freeway exit, where its oxbowed channel has absorbed much of the flooding without blowing out its banks. But where the river is crimped by Interstate 90 and railroad tracks near Bearmouth, the waters have inundated farm houses and fields.
"That's the most water I've seen out of the Clark Fork by far," said Darryl Barton, a Deer Lodge resident who serves on the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee. "And as it drains, I'm afraid the water's going to pull some of that material off the banks again."
In addition to dealing with the toxic waste Barton mentioned, other plans would increase the amount of water in Clark Fork tributary streams like Racetrack, Cottonwood and Lost creeks. More water in the creeks would improve trout breeding areas and boost water quality in the main river. Much of that water is now used for agriculture.
"It's not going to be a hardship to ag producers," Knudsen said. "Ranchers will benefit from this also. It's things like helping ranchers convert from flood irrigation to pivot systems, revegetate riparian areas, and add fencing. A lot of this restoration work will have measurable gains for ranchers. We want to ensure those livelihoods carry on to future generations."