Six feet under 

Safety concerns persist at Blackfoot-Clark Fork confluence

Late last June, the Missoula Rural Fire District sent a dummy through the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers hoping to monitor how a human might fair against two Interstate 90 bridge piers. The results were less than encouraging. After briefly disappearing under the first abutment, the dummy swirled through an eddy and submerged beneath the second. While several spotters claimed to see the dummy resurface downstream, the sightings were unconfirmed.

"I chased it for a mile or so downstream, 'cause they said that's where it was," recalls Cody Harris, president of the Whitewater Rescue Institute, who was waiting in a kayak downstream for the dummy to emerge. "I never saw it."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Local whitewater experts sent a dummy past the I-90 bridge on the lower Blackfoot this summer. That dummy disappeared beneath an abutment, highlighting concerns for public safety should the stretch of river be opened for recreation.

The uncertain fate of that dummy highlights ongoing public safety concerns at the confluence, and stresses the importance of mitigating river hazards before Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks opens that particular stretch of river to the public. It's not necessarily a concern for folks in rafts or kayaks with helmets and personal floatation devices. "It's definitely navigable," Harris says. But there's likely a substantial risk for scores of inner-tubers who have limited maneuverability on the river, and who are oftentimes toting coolers of beer.

The Indy was made aware of the test after receiving a copy of a letter from the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program to the EPA stating that bridge improvements made by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers prior to the Milltown Dam's removal have "resulted in an unsafe condition on the Blackfoot River."

"Those guys looked pretty wide-eyed," FWP park manager Mike Kustudia says of Harris and other river safety professionals who watched the dummy disappear. "And when they're wide-eyed, everyone should be concerned."

The I-90 bridge piers are a particular concern because, compared to most other features on Montana rivers, they're an anomaly. Harris explains that the upgraded abutments are now undercut on the upstream side to withstand moving water, a design he's never seen before. As a result, those undercuts have become an entrapment for logs, sticks and potentially people. With the abutments positioned directly in the main current, they pose a "significant risk," as Harris wrote in a letter shortly after the test.

"Bridge abutments are notorious for catching debris—logs and stuff," Harris says. "So now if a log gets [caught] on the abutment, it's going to get shoved underwater and likely stuck there. Same with a person. It's going to shove them underwater."

Harris adds that Missoula County Search and Rescue has also expressed a desire to schedule site-specific training at the I-90 bridge next summer.

Whitewater Rescue Institute co-founder Mike Johnston says floaters can take some fairly simple precautions, "like not be drunk, and wear a life jacket." But accidents happen, and the dummy's disappearance was enough to convince the Missoula Rural Fire District to begin planning rescue responses in advance of public use. Those plans, as well as any future rescues, are going to be tricky, Johnston says. The abutment hazards will change as the river level drops over the course of the summer, and emergency responders will have to adjust their response plans accordingly.

Kustudia, who's heading an expansive state park project at the confluence, says the abutments also prompted a change of location for a proposed river access site in Milltown. Originally the state park plan called for the site to be constructed on the Blackfoot above the I-90 bridge. Due to the abutment hazard, the site has since been relocated to a point downstream on the Clark Fork.

The abutments aren't the only concern along that stretch though. Kustudia warns that while portions of the old Bonner Dam were removed, sizable chunks of it are still in the river. There are scores of submerged logs in the main channel as well.

"Unfortunately, the river was sort of a dump for many generations," Kustudia says. "I've got pictures of saw blades in the river. It's a hazardous stretch. Every river is hazardous just by nature, but the lower Blackfoot's got hazards that are of human creation."

Discussions about how to mitigate those varied hazards will likely continue into next summer. The most obvious fix is to install signage upstream warning users of danger ahead. Those signs could also encourage users without proper safety equipment to simply get out and avoid the section of river entirely. Kustudia says public service announcements from FWP in advance of the floating season could be another preventative measure. But beyond signage or a complete closure of the lower Blackfoot, Harris doesn't see many other possibilities.

"Either change the abutments or put signs up," Harris says. "Those are the two options."

An extended closure of the confluence is set to expire next July. According to Kustudia, FWP is still drafting a plan on how exactly to execute the opening. He anticipates that the Clark Fork closure will be lifted in early summer, though the floodplain will remain off limits to prevent setbacks in vegetative recovery. The Blackfoot closure may well continue, Kustudia says, until various agencies can agree on how to proceed. Doug Martin with Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program, which is responsible for remediation along the confluence, says the state's goal is to reopen the rivers "as soon as possible." But the NRDP, the Montana Department of Transportation and others all recognize that rushing to action on the lower Blackfoot could have dire consequences.

As for the dummy, if it's ever recovered, Harris says it can be returned to the Missoula Rural Fire District. At least then everyone will know for certain that it's not still on the bottom of the Blackfoot.

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