The effects of the 1908 flood have flowed into modern times. Looking across the basin today, we can see these effects in the ongoing restoration of Silver Bow Creek as streamside tailings deposited by a century of mining are removed. We can see these effects in the slickens dotting the landscape of Deer Lodge Valley; restoration of this section of the river should begin in the next few years. We can even see these effects in the waters themselves, where, if there is heavy runoff or rain, metals and other contaminants wash in, threatening fish and aquatic life. We can see these effects 120 miles downstream at the Milltown Dam, where tailings deposits contaminated the local aquifer with arsenic and ultimately played a key role in the decision to remove the dam. And we can see these effects at the BP/Arco Waste Repository near the town of Opportunity, where tailings from Silver Bow Creek and Milltown are shipped and spread out atop the six square miles of tailings already present at the site from the old operations of the Anaconda Smelter and Reduction Works.
It would be a mistake to think that the cleanup of the Clark Fork will some day be “finished” or “complete.” The cleanup of the Clark Fork and similarly impacted rivers is not so much about a linear series of tasks to be completed as it is about our long-term relationship with the river. A culture of environmental stewardship is blooming in Montana, motivated by past impacts, but once the visible remnants of those impacts have been restored and removed from our field of vision, we must keep our eyes locked firmly on that slippery concept of stewardship in the hope that, in another 100 years, we can celebrate the centennial of a healthy Clark Fork River.