By Michael Howell
In conference chambers just prior to a hearing in District Court last week, former County Attorney George Corn and Missoula attorney Jack Conners reached an agreement with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that sets a deadline of July 7 for lifting the river closure placed on a portion of the Bitterroot River between Woodside and West Tucker Fishing Access Sites. The ban on boating may be lifted prior to the date set if the flow gauge at Missoula drops to 4,000 cubic feet per second. Right now the island that boaters would use for portage is under water.
FWP banned boating on that four-and-a-half-mile stretch of the river on April 11. Corn and Conners filed suit challenging the legality of the closure on May 9, arguing that it was a misuse of “emergency” powers that also involved invocation of rules governing state parks and not rivers. The plaintiffs denied that a state of emergency exists and argued the situation was one of a long identified hazard among many that make floating the river a risky affair. But, they argued, it is not only a risk people enjoy taking, it is a right guaranteed by the constitution and state law. They argued that it was an especially disturbing precedent to set, when the closure was indefinite.
The agency was not willing to lift the ban during the current high water flow due to the hazard posed by the dam when no portage was available due to high water. They did agree to lift the ban when the water receded enough to allow safe portage which they estimated to be about 4,000 cfs or less at the Missoula gauge or by July 7, and the plaintiffs accepted that compromise.
“Getting a hard date to re-open the river was a big concern to me,” said Corn after the agreement was presented to Judge Jeffrey Langton. Corn said it did leave a lot of bigger questions unanswered. Another factor in the compromise, he said, was that a decision from the judge was not assured at this hearing and could stretch until the agreed upon date anyway.
“Part of the motivation for the suit was to make a point to FWP that they need public involvement in decisions of this sort and simply by bringing this suit I think we have made that point,” said Corn.
FWP Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel said afterward that there have been a few accidents this spring despite the signage that the agency had placed in strategic spots warning about the hazard and the need to portage around the dam.
“That signage apparently wasn’t as effective as we would have liked and the intended portage was not workable, sending people over the dam,” said Saffel. He said that’s when the agency decided to close the river in April. He said the agency plans to put up better more effective signage, but with the river at flood stage it’s just not a good time to implement the new plan.
Saffel said the agency was working with irrigators and the Bitterroot Conservation District to get a proposal for a fix funded. It would involve creating a rock lined boat chute similar to what has been installed upriver at the Corvallis Canal diversion. He said the price tag was somewhere between $400,000 to $500,000. He said progress was being made and FWP hoped to have some resolution to the problem installed by 2015.
Howard Eldredge of the Bitterroot Conservation District brought a copy of the grant application documentation to the court with him. Eldredge said that a lot of people don’t understand the hydraulics involved in the deceptively dangerous dam. He said the recycling current at the base of the dam that captures boats and boaters, “keeping” them trapped below the dam, is only one factor. Another factor compounding the danger is that the back turning current contains so much air that the water is not as buoyant as regular river flows, radically reducing the effectiveness of flotation devices.
He expressed confidence that a long term solution would be forthcoming from the coordinated response of agencies and the public will.
“My sense is it will happen,” said Eldredge. “Nobody thinks nothing should be done.”