Riparian repair

How can we put the West's broken rivers back together again?

  • Restoration crew leader Brooks Priest stands on an island just upstream of the old Milltown Reservoir

    Cleo Woelfle-Erskine
  • The Milltown Dam, at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers near Missoula, Montana, once held back the 500-acre Milltown Reservoir -- plus millions of tons of toxic tailings washed down from upstream mines. Now, as part of a massive Superfund cleanup, workers have removed the dam and a $10 million floodplain restoration project is under way.

    Kris Cook, Envirocon
 

Page 2

Beginning this fall, bulldozers will cut a single channel across three miles of the Clark Fork and one mile of the Blackfoot floodplains. Natural-looking structures made out of logs, coconut-husk matting, and riprap will keep the river from cutting into the mine waste that remains. Black weed mat will suppress invasive tansy while 150,000 willow, cottonwood and bulrush seedlings, planted by Priest's crews and others, take root. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Montana promise that once the plants have established, the Clark Fork at the Blackfoot confluence will once again be a "real, dynamic river."

Surveying the scene, Priest says it's not that simple, reflecting the disagreement among river restorationists about whether we can return rivers to health by constructing stable, static channels. "Restoration cowboy" Dave Rosgen, the hydrology consultant who prescribed Milltown's meandering channel, says that carving a single, sinuous channel across a river's old path jumpstarts restoration. In the 1980s, in response to 75 years of Army Corps of Engineers "fixing" that straitjacketed thousands of river miles for flood control and navigation, Rosgen came up with a straightforward method for evaluating and redesigning streams. His techniques are now used by agencies from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Forest Service.

But many geomorphologists, who study how rivers shape the landscape, fault Rosgen's method for using a simplified template instead of a detailed study of how rivers move sediment. They note that river channels evolve in a complex interplay of water flow and the bounce and skid of waterborne sand and gravel. Although the Rosgen method is based on the notion that river channels are stable, aerial surveys show they wind across landscapes unpredictably. Old meanders yield to new meanders, to oxbows, and often intermittently to braids. Season to season, year to year, few rivers stay in the same place. In fact, over-simplifying complex rivers can lead to catastrophe, scientists warn. On Cuneo and Uvas creeks in California, costly Rosgen-inspired reconstruction projects blew out during small floods in 1996 and '97.

The Clark Fork restoration plan recreates a river that never existed, says University of Montana geologist Johnnie Moore. He worries that the reconstructed Clark Fork will be "some kind of reinforced ditch," albeit a curving, natural-looking one. The Clark Fork was once "a true, multi-threaded alluvial river," says Moore. Government surveys dating back to the 1840s depict five distinct channels. Beginning in the 1870s, a mining boom spurred logging, and railroads constricted the channels. Snow melted faster on newly clear-cut slopes; log drives scraped willow-covered islands away, and the river braided even more. Then, in 1908, a massive flood swept across the poisoned wasteland around Anaconda, carrying mountains of tailings that settled in the new Milltown reservoir.

One hundred years later, the river branches across the valley like the veins in a butterfly's wing. So why build a single channel? Money -- and aesthetics. Doug Martin, restoration project manager for the Montana Natural Resources Damage Program, says building a multi-thread channel at Milltown would be trickier, and not cost-effective. What's more, it would mean removing all 6.6 million cubic yards of mine waste. The EPA plans to let ARCO, the company that inherited the Superfund cleanup, leave a third of the waste behind. Besides, a meandering channel fits a cultural ideal of what rivers should look like, says UC Berkeley landscape ecologist Matt Kondolf.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.