After decades of off-limits status, parts of the tranquil and pristine Basin Creek Reservoir tucked in the foothills of the Highlands south of Butte will soon be open to the public for fishing, hiking, biking and picnicking.
It’s a gamble, in a sense, because the reservoir is Butte’s most valuable source of drinking water — so much so, the county invested $30 million in a state-of-the-art plant a few miles away to treat its water and send it to faucets in town.
It’s that plant that paved the way for public access, since its treatment processes should be able to handle greater human interface with the reservoir water.
But wildfires are another matter. They would strip out trees and vegetation, increase erosion and send sediments into the reservoir that would be hard to treat, officials say.
Efforts are underway to clear out deadwood around the reservoir, and wildfires can be sparked by lightning, of course. But no campfires will be allowed when the area is opened.
The reservoir is also home to a pure strain of native westslope cutthroat trout — the only species in there — and though fishing will only be allowed from the shoreline, it will be allowed.
The density of trout is high and steps are planned — literally — to expand their spawning areas in Basin Creek.
If Butte residents follow the fishing rules, said Caleb Uerling, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, they’ll have a gem in their backyard.
“It’s a pretty cool resource for this area to have open to fishing,” Uerling said. “There are no fisheries of that quality this close to Butte anywhere around, and specifically for native, wild westslope cutthroat trout.”
Access will be limited to the east side of the reservoir from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Oct. 1, and it could be closed earlier due to construction on the dam, low water levels, high water temperatures or dry, hot weather that leads to high wildfire risks.
People have been sneaking into the area and fishing for years, although an “open” sign will lead to far greater numbers. But if things go well this summer and early fall, the plan is to also open it from around Memorial Day through Oct. 1 in 2022 and 2023.
“We’re not going to limit the numbers (of visitors) right now, we’re going to let it play out and see how they behave,” Parks Director Bob Lazzari told commissioners during a presentation on all the plans this week. “We are hoping that people respect what we are offering right now.”
Although state and federal wildlife officials will keep an eye on things, the bulk of enforcement will fall to the county’s Parks Division. They will hire a “camp host” soon who will live in an RV or trailer and monitor the place, and once that person is on board, the experiment begins.
How long public access lasts will depend in great part on the public.
Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Shawn Fredrickson, who is also a member of the county’s Parks and Recreation Board, says he’s been won over for now.
He said he was “somewhat skeptical about opening this up to the public” but changed his mind after J.P. Gallagher, who was parks director before he became the county’s chief executive in January, gave him a tour.
It was clear that some people are getting into the area already, Fredrickson said, so he supports the move with a corresponding “watchful eye” on things.
“Hopefully people will respect it because it’s a really sweet place,” he said.
THE DAM PROJECT
Completion of the water treatment plant in 2017 is the key to public access now, but its origins go even farther back.
About $20 million to build the plant came from money benefiting the Upper Clark Fork River Basin and $10 million came from the Butte Natural Resource Damage Program Council. At the urging of Emmett Riordan, one of its members, the group tacked on a requirement that after the plant was built, the reservoir would be opened up.
The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited was among early backers of access and has developed a master recreation plan that includes fishing and trails. But it has taken four years for proponents to get more funding and other factors lined up.
And it’s only a start.
There are actually three other projects going on at the reservoir — one for the dam, one for the trees and one for the fish.
The dam has been holding back water in the reservoir for more than a century so it can be tapped for drinking water. Most of it was constructed with granite in the 1890s and that portion is in solid shape today.
The top 13 feet of the dam are made of concrete added in 1911, and deterioration of that portion was noted during 2014 and 2019 inspections. The dam is not in imminent danger of failing, officials say, but crumbling is accelerating and must be addressed.
The county is looking at three possible repair options, with costs ranging from $1.2 million to $4.3 million, depending on how extensive the fixes are. The costliest option is removing and replacing the entire concrete portion of the dam.
The county has secured two grants totaling $625,000 for the dam project so far, said Pat Cunneen, an engineer with the county’s Public Works Department, and expects to know soon whether an additional $2.5 million federal grant comes through.
Once the funding puzzle is clear, final engineering could begin early next year and construction could begin in June 2023, he said.
The walkway over the dam is fenced off and it will not be accessible to the public, and it’s possible that construction work could interrupt access.
THE TREES PROJECT
It has been several years since mountain pine beetles invaded the East Ridge and other nearby areas, but the dead trees they left behind — some still standing, many on the ground — are all around.
“Once those trees have died, they become kindling and we’ve got a lot of that up in the Basin Creek watershed,” Cunneen said. “So our hope is to remove as much of that dead timber as we can to reduce the fuels if there ever was a wildfire.”
Wildfires remove trees and other vegetation, increasing erosion, and that would send lots of sediment into the reservoir.
“It would be very hard to treat the water with a lot of sediment in it,” Cunneen said.
Butte-Silver Bow has worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Natural Resources on reducing fuels, and county crews removed lots of the dead timber this spring from county-owned land that hugs the reservoir. The timber was hauled to a nearby area and people were allowed to collect it for firewood.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has started an “Aspen project,” which involves cutting down conifers within 100 feet of aspens so the latter can survive and thrive, adding diversity to the forest. That work is being done throughout the watershed.
There are plenty of cutthroat trout in the soon-to-be-open lower reservoir — maybe too many for their own good.
In a sample last year, three nets set out overnight caught 197 cutthroat trout. That’s considered a very high density, and because of it, the fish are stunted to a degree. Their lengths ranged from 6.3 inches to 14.4 inches with an average of 9.5 inches.
In simple terms, Uerling said, they are short and skinny.
The reservoir has been accessed and fished illegally by some for years, and some harvesting is taking place. That’s obvious because in samples over the last few years, Uerling says, many of the fish have hook scars.
The fishing pressure will increase when folks are allowed in, of course, and that could be a good thing.
“The population will likely go down as it gets fished, but there’s a pretty good chance you will see the size and condition factor go up a little bit,” Uerling said. “It’s hard to say until it’s actually open and people are fishing it, but that’s sort of what I expect.”
In hopes of keeping the population healthy under increased fishing pressure, with guidance from state wildlife officials and funding from various sources, there are plans to build an aquatic passage late this summer or early fall.
As it is now, Basin Creek connects the lower reservoir with a smaller, upper reservoir more than a half-mile upstream. Trout need moving water to spawn, but they only have a short distance of stream before they hit a dam that supports the sediment basin.
The basin collects sediment from the upper reservoir so it doesn’t spill into the lower reservoir, and every couple of years, crews remove the sediment. There is a large pipe that connects the basin to the creek, but it’s almost impossible for fish to get through.
The aquatic passage will be a series of 17 step pools that allow trout to get around the basin and farther upstream, even a half mile to the upper reservoir. The fish are “pulling off” spawning now, Uerling says, but the passage “gives them a whole bunch more room.”
The hope is that with the extra spawning room, the trout can replenish their numbers enough to counter the added fishing pressure so no stocking is needed to keep it open for fishing.
“We’re trying to give the fish as good a chance as we can to maintain a wild fishery there even when people are fishing and harvesting some,” Uerling said.
In that same spirit, Butte-Silver Bow is recommending that people voluntarily keep only one fish per day, though current state regulations allow three. No live bait will be allowed because it presents several risks, some related to new or invasive species.
“We don’t want someone going up there with a bucket of minnows or other small fish, and all of a sudden, we have a big pile of those in there,” Uerling said.
There’s also the threat of introducing zebra mussels or other destructive species. Carrying buckets of live bait to different places increases that possibility.
That could be catastrophic for a municipal water source, Uerling said, because zebra mussels are infamous for plugging up water infrastructure.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The county posted the job of a camp host this weekend, and that person will monitor activities and make sure basic rules and restrictions are being followed. Officials hope to have someone in place in the next two weeks, and once they do, the reservoir will be open.
No motorized vehicles are allowed, meaning access is limited to walking or bicycling in. And it’s a hefty, elevated distance from the parking lot at Basin Creek Park to the east side of the reservoir.
People are only allowed on the east side, in part because the county owns more land on that side of the reservoir. But it stretches nearly a mile, so there will certainly be room for fishing, hiking and picnicking. And a few porta-potties will be placed about.
Among things not allowed are barbed hooks, swimming, wading, watercraft — including float tubes — overnight camping and fires. And as previously mentioned, several things could interrupt the access season.
Gallagher, the county’s chief executive, is looking forward to the opening.
“The Basin Creek Reservoir is an incredible asset to our community,” he said Friday. “For over a century, it has provided us with clean mountain drinking water for residents.
“With the addition of the Basin Creek water treatment plant, we can now open up this beautiful location as a recreational opportunity for residents and visitors to fish one of the most pristine fisheries in the Northwest.”
Butte-Silver Bow is banking on people to keep it that way, and more than anything, its use for municipal water will be protected.
“It’s our highest quality, lowest-cost source of water and currently over half of Butte’s drinking water comes from Basin Creek, so if recreators don’t respect the resource, we would have to close it again,” Cunneen said.
“It’s a fragile and pristine ecosystem because humans have mostly been locked out for the past 100 years.”