The Supply Ditch diversion dam that crosses the Bitterroot River near Corvallis doesn’t look like much, but this low strip of concrete has caused a number of serious boating accidents—one of which resulted in the death of a 6-year-old girl in June 2013. While Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued strong warnings about the dam’s dangers and posted signs urging boaters to portage around the hazard, a pair of accidents early this spring convinced FWP to take a more drastic measure. On April 11, the agency closed the approximately 5-mile stretch between the Woodside and Tucker Crossing fishing access sites, where the dam is located.
Though there’s no dispute over the dam’s danger, recreational boaters and anglers, as well as professional guides and outfitters, have criticized the closure as overregulation that could set a troubling precedent. It’s an inconvenience that’s not going to make or break the local fishing industry, but it does raise questions about further FWP intervention.
“Every time there’s an accident, whether the person involved was being negligent or not, does FWP have the responsibility to step in and create some type of regulation, close a piece of river, limit public and commercial access?” asks Missoula-based fishing guide Evan Phillippe. “That’s a frightening path to go down.”
FWP fisheries manager Pat Saffel acknowledges this concern, but he argues the closure is a rare exception rather than a precedent-setting rule.
“We don’t want to get in the business of telling people what’s safe or not,” he says. “But this one had proven issues that we tried to address and, still, people were getting into trouble, and we thought it was severe enough that we needed some time to better inform people about what’s going on.”
What Saffel, Phillippe and area boaters want is for this section of the river to be made permanently safe. Efforts to find and fund such a solution, however, have been complicated by uncertainty about who owns the dam. FWP and others assumed Supply Ditch Association, a Stevensville-based irrigation company, owns the dam, which diverts water for agricultural use. Supply Ditch Chairman Hans McPherson, however, disputes that notion. “I don’t know that Supply Ditch owns it,” he says.
McPherson believes the dam was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program of the 1930s. Therefore, he thinks the dam is property of the U.S. government—but he isn’t certain. “I’ve never established that,” says McPherson. “That’s what we’d like to know, too.”
With so much uncertainty about who owns the dam and when it will be made more safe, a permanent solution still appears far off.