ST. IGNATIUS — Representatives from the City of Missoula and Trout Unlimited recently visited with the Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee Elders Council to inform them about the Rattlesnake Creek dam removal and restoration project slated to begin this spring. They also invited the SQCC to be an active participant in the restoration of the area. The planning for removal of the dam began in 2017.
Missoula City Conservation Land Manager Morgan Valliant, and Trout Unlimited Project Manager Rob Roberts gave the Elders Council a bit of the project background and plans for restoration.
“This is a very big restoration project. In June, we’re going to have a kick-off event,” said Valliant. “We want the Tribes to be there for the project green-light ceremonies.”
The Rattlesnake Dam was constructed on lower Rattlesnake Creek in the early 1900s to create a reservoir that served as a water supply for Missoula. However, in 1983, giardia, a microscopic parasite that causes giardiasis, a diarrheal illness, was found in the reservoir, thus ending it as a source of potable water for Missoula.
Roberts said, that beginning in April the buildings at the dam will be removed. Following that in June the removal of the dam will begin. Once those deconstruction projects are finished rehabilitation of the riparian zone will begin with the goal of restoring Rattlesnake Creek to its natural state.
The Restoration work is expected to be completed by late November and Rattlesnake Creek will once again be free flowing. However, the final natural free flowing state won’t be the final work on the project.
Valliant said, Rattlesnake Creek will require long-term oversight management to get the entire riparian area back to its natural state, and as a recreation area.
Part of the restoration is the planting of the natural flora of the area, and part of the recreation is informative signage, and Valliant said that’s where he would like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to be a part of the restoration effort.
“We want input from the Tribes on how we can best educate people about the area. We want appropriate content on the signage” Valliant said. “We need a small army of people to replant the area. That would be a good opportunity for the tribal people and tribal youth to be a part of, like at the regional park.”
Last year the tribal youngsters planted approximately 850 bitterroot plants in the Missoula Regional Park, and in the last few years the SQCC has been involved in the placing of interpretive signage at the park and other locations in western Montana. This would be an extension of that relationship.
The Rattlesnake dam removal and Rattlesnake Creek restoration project will cost approximately $2 million.
Rattlesnake Creek is one of the major sources of trout for the Clark Fork River and a highly popular recreation area for the public. Removal of the dam will reconnect 26 miles of habitat for fish and wildlife, create new opportunities for trails and other recreation and reestablish a natural river connection between the Rattlesnake Wilderness at the headwaters and the Clark Fork River for the first time in more than 100 years
The 15 miles of creek above the dam support resident and migratory populations of native bull trout, a species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and native west-slope cutthroat trout, a Montana species of concern.
Mitigating and restoring the dam site has the potential to restore habitat for native fish as well as improve water quality in Rattlesnake Creek and provide additional scenic open space and recreational opportunities for the Missoula community.
There are other dams upstream from the lower Rattlesnake Creek dam. Montana Power Co. built 10 dams on eight lakes in the Rattlesnake Wilderness between 1911 and 1923 to supply water to the city of Missoula. They were purchased by Mountain Water Co. in 1979, and by the City of Missoula in 2017.
There are hopes that in the future those dams, too will be removed. However, others see value in retention of the clean cool water for late summer water flows in Rattlesnake Creek.