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Home Restore Milltown Dam: Removal, Cleanup, and Restoration
Milltown Dam Removal and Cleanup Project Print E-mail

new-channel-lowresThe Clark Fork Returns to Its Restored Channel at Milltown

On December 16, the Clark Fork River was diverted from the bypass to its restored channel.  Watch the river's journey into its new home on the Dam Cam, or visit the public bluff at Milltown (see these directions).  At the Coalition, we have worked persistently since 2000 to transform dam removal and sediment cleanup into a thinkable, viable option that was eventually endorsed by the EPA, the State of Montana, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, state legislators, local governments, and thousands of citizens and businesses in the communities near the former Milltown Reservoir. 

 

 

 


Watch this video produced by Damon Ristau and the Firewater Film Company chronicling the Clark Fork River's return to its restored floodplain at Milltown:


milltown_reservoir
History

Why Remove the Dam?
Expectations
Press Kit
Resource Library
EPA Updates
Dam Cam

Time Lapse Video

Photo Gallery

 

 


History

The western end point of the upper Clark Fork’s Superfund complex is the Milltown Dam area. For one hundred years, the dam plugged the river just eight miles upstream of Missoula at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. The 180-acre reservoir behind Milltown Dam was full of contaminated sediment—6.6 million cubic yards of it—that washed down from Butte’s copper mines during the record flood of 1908 and stacked up behind the dam. The contaminated sediment, laden with arsenic and copper, poisoned local wells for years and also killed off fish and other aquatic life during high flows and ice jams.

On Aug. 2, 2005—after 22 strenuous years of investigating the site, developing a cleanup plan, and negotiating who pays for what—officials from four federal and state agencies, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, ARCO, and Northwest Energy signed an agreement to remove Milltown Dam and the most contaminanted sediments piled up behind it. The dam came out of the river one half at a time between spring 2008 and spring 2009, and sediment excavation—a two-year project— lasted until 2010. Restoration efforts are now underway at the free-flowing confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.

The Milltown Dam removal is a huge victory for rivers and communities upstream and down. We have worked persistently since 2000 to transform dam removal and sediment cleanup into a thinkable, viable option that was eventually endorsed by the EPA, the State of Montana, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, state legislators, local governments, and thousands of citizens and businesses in the communities near the Milltown Reservoir.



Why Remove the Dam?


Remove Water Pollution: The Milltown Reservoir contained mining waste that began stacking up against Milltown Dam almost immediately after it was built in 1908. That year, 33 days of rain fell on western Montana, washing millions of tons of mining waste into the floodwaters that poured down the Clark Fork. Today, the reservoir is so full that the dam can’t hold back the metals-laced sediments that wash downstream during high runoff events.

For the area’s groundwater, the most worrisome of Milltown’s toxins was arsenic. It poisoned local drinking water supplies, and an arsenic plume stretched well beyond the reservoir's boundaries. As for surface waters, the natural cycles of runoff, flooding, and ice scourings meant that copper and zinc from the reservoir were routinely churned up and washed over Milltown Dam and into the Clark Fork, where they degraded water quality and posed unacceptable risks to river life.

End Fish Kills: Trout populations in the Clark Fork are not what they should be and it's no mystery why: metals and dams. On the metals front, copper is the big problem—it is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Over 13,000 tons of it sat in the reservoir, sending toxic pulses over the dam during high flows and ice jams.  Milltown was one of four dams on the Clark Fork and had the distinction of blocking fish from travelling to the upper river to reach key spawning tributaries, such as the Blackfoot, Rock Creek, and Flint Creek.

To make matters worse, migrating trout—such as the threatened bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout—used to stack up at the Milltown dam during spring runoff. That was the same time that high flow flushed the metal-laden sediment over the dam and down the river.  For native fish on the upstream side of the dam, conditions were just as inhospitable.  Inroduced northern pike, which used to thrive in the reservoir's warm, slack waters, were an agressive species that ate native trout as they tried to migrate downstream.

Improve Local Economics: Milltown Dam generated under 2 megawatts of power—a negligible amount of energy for a hydroelectric dam. In fact, that kind of output didn't even cover the dam’s two-person payroll. From a business perspective, the dam was a losing venture.

As for nearby communities, the dam and its contaminated reservoir were a drag on local economies. The “Superfund” stigma does not attract investment dollars or tourism activity to the region. And a dam that blocked the confluence of two mighty rivers drastically curtailed the ecological potential of the area, which in turn hobbles its economic vitality.

Remove an Unsafe Dam: Milltown dam—which was finished in 1908—was routinely in need of structural upgrades and repairs to fix cracks and cavities, seal up leaks and seepages, replace flashboards, and install anchors. It was declared a "high hazard" dam by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and it would have been hugely expensive to comply with safety standards.


Expectations

By removing Milltown Dam and the contaminated sediments, we are doing the right thing for our environment, our health, our economy, and the future of our communities. It will eliminate the damaging environmental impacts of the dam and sediments. Yes, there were some metals impacts to the river in the short run, but as the project nears completion, we're seeing these risks disappear forever.

Fish of all species have migrated unhindered past the former dam site since the first breach, and their upstream and downstream populations are on the increase.  The arsenic contamination in groundwater will dissipate within a decade, perhaps as quickly as four years, according to models. The risk of downstream releases of metals is now permanently eliminated, and there will be no risk of dam failure that would send millions of tons of contaminated sediment downstream.

The return of the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers to a free-flowing state will revitalize the area’s economy and create a significant community asset, providing fishing, boating, and other types of river recreation that are in high demand in western Montana.

This moment can also be one of supreme satisfaction, gratitude, and pride for all friends of the Clark Fork River. The notion of dam removal was “far-fetched and ridiculous." Today, it's “desirable, even necessary." Thousands of you wrote letters, contacted your elected officials, spoke up at public meetings, donated your time and money, and educated your children, your friends, your neighbors, and your clients on behalf of a clean and dam-free river at Milltown. Your hard work made the difference.



Press Kit

Bringing down the dam, 3 Aug. 2005.
Milltown Dam removal plan finalized, Missoulian, 21 Dec. 2004.
Martz applauds Milltown dam removal, Missoulian, 22 Dec. 2004.
EPA unveils Milltown cleanup revisions, Missoulian, 18 May 2004
Once Again, a River Will Run Through It, Washington Post, 16 April 2003.
A Copper Mine Ran Through It: Tales of A River’s Rescue, New York Times, 1 April, 2003.
EPA formalizes decision to remove Milltown Dam, Missoulian, 16 April 2003.
EPA: Remove Montana Dam, The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, 16 April 2003.
Removing dam a significant step to cleanup, Great Falls Tribune, 17 April, 2003.
Arco eyes Opportunity Ponds, Missoulian, 22 July 2003.
Ready to go: Envirocon answers questions on Milltown cleanup plans, Missoulian, 23 July 2003.
Back in the Flow, Missoulian, June 2003.

Listen to a Prairie Home Companion broadcast from Missoula on September 30, 2006, when Garrison Keillor mentions the removal of Milltown Dam in his remarks about Missoula and in Guy Noir. Segment 2 is the segment to download.


Resource Library

The Milltown Superfund site provides complex and fascinating reading and research. Check out the following resources for a solid overview of problems, challenges, possibilities, and upcoming realities:

Milltown consent decree (Department of Justice)
Milltown Reservoir Record of Decision (EPA’s final plan)
Milltown Reservoir revised proposed cleanup plan (EPA’s revised plan) (PDF, 1.5MB, 24 pages)
Milltown Reservoir cleanup proposal (EPA’s full plan) (PDF, 1.9MB, 35 pages)
EPA web site about the Milltown Superfund site
Restoration plan for the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers (Natural Resource Damage Program’s full plan) (PDF, 784kb, 53 pages)
Milltown Reservoir Superfund site FAQ (produced by the Clark Fork Coalition) (PDF, 584kb, 2 pages)
Why Milltown Reservoir’s toxic sediments and its dam should go (Clark Fork Coalition position paper)
(PDF, 4MB, 34 pages)
Friends of Two Rivers web site