Open water 

Floating a new Clark Fork for the first time

Page 2 of 4

Half an hour later, I catch a disappointment. A foot-long whitefish bites on my rubber legs. Whitefish, while native, are widely considered “trash fish” in the fly-fishing community. Jamie’s quick to toss it back, looking up and down the river like a child trying to bury the evidence before the watchful eyes of a parent catch the transgression. Above us, the mountains loom snowcapped and cold. I take another pull of Eddy Out to soothe the indignity.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Lt. Gov. John Walsh stands on the Turah boat ramp after a speech crediting restoration of the Clark Fork to “government coming together.”

Downstream of Turah and that tricky logjam, the Clark Fork peels off in occasional side channels. Farmhouses and outlying buildings dot the banks. Every so often the rush of a semi on the interstate drowns out the rumble of the river. But the waterway itself remains wild here–steeply cut banks lined with reed canarygrass and interrupted at every bend by jumbled gravel bars.

I ask Bruce if he ever imagined that this stretch would open to public use.

“Never,” he answers, casting his line overhead to the other side of the skiff in one swift motion. “Removing the dam? Restoring the river? If you’d asked me 25 years ago, I’m not sure I would have said yes.”

Bruce first laid eyes on the Clark Fork when he came to Missoula as a teen. But the river has been a constant part of his professional life since the late ’80s, back when he was a member of the Clark Fork Coalition. He remembers the first conversations about what to do about the Milltown Dam. Montana Power Company lobbied heavily to keep the structure in place. Bruce and others couldn’t understand why.

“It only generated two megawatts,” he says. “It had no storage capacity.” According to the Clark Fork Coalition, the power generation alone wasn’t enough to cover the salaries of the two-person team that operated the dam.

If the dam had breached, it would have released 6.6 million cubic yards of toxic mine tailings into the lower Clark Fork, devastating the fishery downstream. It was a constant fear that nearly came true in 1996, when a massive ice jam moved down the Blackfoot past Milltown and spurred regulators to release more water to halt a catastrophe. The maneuver prevented a breach, but the added release carried sediment from the reservoir downstream. The subsequent increase in copper deposits reduced the rainbow and brown trout populations below the dam by more than half.

“The thing just made no sense,” Bruce says.

If there’s one person Bruce credits for our trip today, it’s John Wardell, the former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency. Up until the ice jam incident, Bruce explains, no one had really taken the subject of dam removal seriously. Wardell was one of the first officials who appeared sold on a more permanent fix for the Clark Fork. Alongside the Montana DEQ, Wardell’s office finally announced in 2003 that Milltown Dam would be removed completely.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Wader-clad locals wait to hit the water during the reopening ceremony.

Now the well-water in Milltown—once polluted by arsenic deposits—is clean again. Fish are able to travel upstream to the Blackfoot and upper Clark Fork. And we’re able to fish from a boat south of Turah. But part of the day is bittersweet for Bruce. Wardell died in a climbing accident near Libby in August 2009, just over a year after Milltown Dam was breached but a month before the last trainload of toxic sediment had left the former reservoir.

With the dam already gone and the remediation well underway, what exactly does the opening of this stretch of river mean for folks around here?

“Closure,” Bruce says.

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