Missoula offers momentum on Rattlesnake Dam removal

With work to remove Missoula’s Rattlesnake Creek Dam now underway, it’s a good time to call attention to the inspiring local partnerships that led to this. There are lessons that can apply across the West.

The 60-foot-long dam, in place since 1904, will be removed and the creek restored, giving bull trout, westslope cutthroat and other species renewed access to miles of spawning habitat. While dam removals are occurring with increasing frequency, this project is remarkable in how it came about and what may come of it.

My colleagues and I at Resources Legacy Fund have had the good fortune to engage with Missoula leaders through our Open Rivers Fund, which supports local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize water infrastructure and restore rivers across the West. When the Fund launched in 2016 with a $50 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we sought projects where success could build momentum and enable dam removals elsewhere. That brought us to Missoula.

The city took ownership of Rattlesnake Creek Dam in 2017 as part of its purchase of Mountain Water Company. The dam no longer served its original purpose and, because it was decaying, represented a risk to the city — at some point, eventually, it would need to come out. City leaders, starting with Mayor John Engen, decided that sooner was better and safer than later.

Proposed dam removals often stay on “wish lists” for long periods because they are complex and require resources and expertise. This project became real, fast, when the City partnered with the Missoula chapter of Trout Unlimited. Trout Unlimited took the lead in planning, engineering, project management and fundraising; the City provided leadership and removed bureaucratic roadblocks.

Together, with smart plans and willing engagement, they helped forge solid tribal support and community consensus. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes look forward to restoring bull trout runs that once provided their winter sustenance. The plan earned near universal support at the first public hearing. And last fall, we conducted two dozen interviews with community leaders who voiced full support for the project and an uncommonly high understanding of the economic and cultural value of healthy rivers.

This is why the dam is set to come out less than three years after the City acquired it. The consensus, collaboration and momentum have been extraordinary.

The science behind dam removal and river restoration is still in a formative stage. Learning must be amassed and shared among scientists, engineers and public officials. Public awareness of how river restoration builds community resilience must grow.

This is where Missoula’s Watershed Education Network steps in. They are working with volunteers to study the creek as it returns to its natural state. They developed robust scientific protocols for use by non-scientists. They are part of an effort, coordinated by a team at the University of California Davis, to engage more citizen science volunteers in dam removal and river restoration projects across the West.

The work of restoring Rattlesnake Creek won’t end this summer. When the City purchased the water company, it also took ownership of 10 small dams, built a century ago, high up in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness. Those dams are also in disrepair.

Trout Unlimited, the Clark Fork Coalition and others envision a plan to remove some of these dams while repairing others. Headwater storage could allow for timed release of cold water to sustain trout in late summer and early fall. Restoring the full run of Rattlesnake Creek, and protecting its lifeblood of cold water, would support Clark Fork trout populations. And it would help communities across the West see what success looks like.

This op-ed was published in The Missoulian on July 5, 2020.