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With temperatures breaking records for the third consecutive year, the Upper Clark Fork River – once a water course troubled by heavy metals contamination – now faces the more “normal” challenges of Montana rivers and streams: low flows and high water temperatures.

The river in early August flowed as low as 3 cubic feet per second around Dempsey Creek at Sager Lane Road, about 6 miles south of Deer Lodge, according to Mike McLane, water conservation specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Now that the state’s heavy metals cleanup efforts in the river are making progress, ranchers and irrigators are contending with a different set of issues – the challenge of finding a balance of usage and also protecting its fishery.

But help for the Upper Clark Fork is on the way.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture acting deputy secretary Mike Scuse along with Democrats U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock spoke before approximately 50 people at the nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition’s Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch along the river to celebrate $1.7 million in federal money about to come to the area.

The $1.7 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service will enable the state to build four miles of canals in the Westside and Whalen ditches between Racetrack Road and Deer Lodge.

This is the area where flows drop the most precipitously, said Ted Dodge, executive director of the Upper Clark Fork River’s Watershed Restoration Coalition. Once complete, the project should save an estimated 19 cubic feet per second, according to the nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition, which works to protect the river.

Scuse, who made his first visit to Montana with this trip, called the project “a high priority” and “a long-term solution.”

The Natural Resource Damage Program will do the work and provide the remaining estimated $4.8 million necessary. That money comes from a settlement the state reached in a lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Company, the responsible party for the Upper Clark Fork Superfund site.

The two ditches provide water to over 3,000 acres and are the largest diversion on the upper river, according to the coalition.

Dodge said the project will likely take two to three years to complete.

But is it enough?

Dodge said Friday that while it’s a “healthy start,” it won’t alleviate low flows and high water temperatures completely.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The Clark Fork lacks a drought management plan. But initial talks have begun.

Noorjahan Parwana, facilitator for the Granite County Watershed Group, said irrigators have met about water use conservation, drought planning, and resiliency, but the talks are in the early stages.

The Watershed Restoration Coalition also had initial talks about the creation of a drought management plan, Dodge said.

Drought management plans are relatively rare for Montana waterways. The Big Hole, Jefferson and Blackfoot are the only rivers that have such plans, said Ada Montague, Clark Fork River basin water planner with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Such plans are voluntary, but they establish that once a river drops to a certain flow rate, irrigators who are willing to participate will cut back or stop irrigating.

The Ruby River near Sheridan and the Bitterroot River south of Missoula have an unofficial process to reduce irrigation to improve flows. The Musselshell River in Eastern Montana has a distribution plan, Montague said.

But unlike other rivers in Montana, users of the Clark Fork – which runs westerly from its confluence east of Anaconda to where it flows into Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho panhandle – must within the next nine years come up with such a plan.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, if ratified by the U.S. Congress, establishes the need for a drought management plan. The compact gives the Salish and Kootenai tribes the ability to have a water right on the river to protect its fishery. The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which acquired a water right through Superfund work at the former Milltown Dam east of Missoula, will manage the tribes’ water rights on the Clark Fork, McLane said.

Though this isn’t expected to go into effect until 2025, once it does, it will mean that FWP can regulate water on the Clark Fork when it gets too low for fish to survive.

But irrigator and self-proclaimed Clark Fork River “water hog” Dan McQueary, 68, who ranches 5 miles east of Deer Lodge, believes there’s a better way to conserve water than implementing a drought management plan. One key is keeping water in the aquifers, he said.

“They (ranchers in other drainages) are not doing drought management, they’re putting the water back in for fish,” McQueary said Wednesday.

“Our livelihood is based on irrigation. That’s your livelihood. People don’t eat if we don’t produce food in the U.S. If we have to import more food, you’re at the mercy of someone else,” McQueary said.

McQueary believes that a variety of efforts need to happen in order to recharge aquifers. That includes flood irrigation and creating swampy areas.

“We’ve got to think about how to keep this water in this ground,” McQueary said.

Montague, who also serves on Gov. Bullock’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee, said the focus has begun to shift away from drought response to drought management.

Montague agreed that flood irrigation can have a positive impact.

“It’s often seen as wasteful, but wetlands are another example of how to put more moisture in the soil to recharge aquifers,” Montague said. “We have to slow water down as it moves across the landscape.”

John Hollenback, who ranches along the Clark Fork River 20 miles north of Deer Lodge, said that irrigators need to find better ways to become stewards of the water before it reaches a critical low point.

“Shame on us for the way we manage,” Hollenback said.

NO EASY ANSWER

While a heavy rainstorm earlier this month and subsequent smaller showers bumped flows back up – the river measured 75 cubic feet per second at a gauge near Galen on Saturday morning – the long-term issue of low flows and warming water won’t be resolved soon, said many of the people who spoke with The Montana Standard.

FWP fisheries manager Pat Saffel said from his Missoula office last week that the Clark Fork has yet another challenge, which is a lack of shade on its banks. This can lead water temperatures to soar in the summer.

The lack of water doesn’t help either. The less water, the warmer it becomes.

“I would think that at 3 cfs they (fish) can’t survive,” Saffel said.

He added that when flows get low and the water temperatures get high, the fish retreat into tributaries and holes, but this leads to a lot of fish in a small space. That, in turn, creates predation and too much competition.

“If there’s one thing Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork need, it’s a supply of cold water,” Saffel said.

Hollenback pointed out that there are 30 cold water lakes and reservoirs in the high mountains of the Flint Creek Range west of Deer Lodge.

But Dodge said Friday that while many people are working on the issue, the Clark Fork needs more help from the national level to address climate change.

“This is our future. People may not believe that, but we’re in trouble. We’re going to keep beating that drum. We need action at the federal level to address this issue in a real way,” Dodge said.

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