|Milltown Dam Removal and Cleanup Project|
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:
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.
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.
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.
Bringing down the dam, 3 Aug. 2005.
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)