Thursday, November 6, 2008

Westslope trout found in Restored Silver Bow Creek

In the restoration of Silver Bow Creek,
the word “progress” can be essentially defined with the recent capture of two native Westslope cutthroat trout in its flows this October. While barely enough to fill one fisherman’s stomach (if keeping westslopes were legal, of course), the presence of these two fish speaks volumes to the likelihood that a stream long-revered as one of the West’s most contaminated waterways has hope in establishing a future fishery, if things continue down the same, right path.

It’s noteworthy to mention that while the trout found in the creek this fall are certainly remarkable, the ongoing and previous restoration across the floodplain has been very successful to date, most notably judged by the exceptional increase in vegetation diversity and the presence of various waterfowl, shore and song birds, deer, moose, and even elk frequenting the area. What is particularly significant about the discovery of the two Westslopes during the annual electrofishing count on Silver Bow Creek is that they were collected in a location several miles away from the closest “clean” tributary supporting a healthy Westslope population.

In the past, brook trout have been found during the annual fisheries monitoring, but never Westslopes, and what’s more, never so far away from one of the uncontaminated tributaries, like Browns Gulch and German Gulch creeks. Westslope cutthroat can serve as an “umbrella species” in an ecosystem – if there are Westslope cutthroat trout thriving, then everything else in the ecosystem must be relatively well too – another piece of evidence that all is going as planned in the ultimate restoration of Silver Bow Creek.
This is exciting news as the project moves closer to completion (the remediation and restoration of Silver Bow Creek is now expected to be finished by the end of 2011). It’s also important news in light of some recent monitoring data that shows metals recontamination occurring in some of the upper reaches of the restored stream. Greg Mullen, the restoration project manager for the Natural Resource Damage Program, stated the following in light of the recent trout findings: “Once the wastewater treatment plant (Butte’s Metro Sewer municipal sewage treatment plant, which discharges high volumes of nutrient-laden water to the creek) is cleaned up, then we should see more trout in Silver Bow Creek.”

Perhaps the biggest thing for the public and others to remember when judging restoration projects of this magnitude is that it takes a significant amount of time for a stream to return to an uncontaminated condition after more than a century of intense abuse and misuse. The remediation and restoration of Silver Bow Creek started in 1999; it wasn’t until 2008 that the first native trout were found swimming in its restored reaches. One of the remedial goals of the project from the mid-1990s was to reestablish a self-sustaining native Westslope fishery in Silver Bow Creek. Well, it’s nine years later and we’re getting there.

In restoration, it’s the destination, not so much the journey, that needs our greatest attention. There are lots of ups and downs along the way, but keep in mind that the end of the road will take us to a better, cleaner place.

Another good example and case for this reminder is the Milltown Dam and Sediments Removal remediation and restoration project, 120 miles downstream at the Clark Fork’s confluence with the Blackfoot River. With the breaching of the dam last March, there has been a significant amount of sediment, some containing arsenic, that washed downstream of the project, allegedly impacting the middle Clark Fork fishery and macroinvertebrate populations, not to mention the reservoir at Thompson Falls another 100 miles downstream. Regardless of these short-term impacts, the important thing to remember again is that restoration takes time.
The Clark Fork-Blackfoot confluence has been hidden and contaminated behind and beneath the Milltown Dam and Reservoir for 100 years. This integral link between big river ecosystems was just reconnected in March of 2008 and while there are some short-term impacts that might not be as positive as we’d like to see, there are thousands and thousands of fish and their future generations already much, much happier, even in the murk of some extra sediments.

Of course it would be foolish not to look closer at short-term data that shows problems, especially if the problems are ones that can and need to be addressed. The data showing recontamination of restored Silver Bow Creek tells that there is still significant work left to be done on the Butte Hill; the Milltown sediments loading since the breaching signifies that additional erosion and sediment control measures may need to be in place before the Spring 2009 runoff. But it’s just as foolish for one to expect that fragile and complex ecological systems like those being restored are going to improve overnight or, likewise, to sound the alarm of failure at the earliest signs of negative data. Again, not to belabor the point, it took our predecessors more than a century to put this watershed in the condition that required the current cleanup; it is certainly possible that it could take decades before things are fully restored, depending on the definition of restoration.

But the rewards of a revitalized watershed are as great as any mother lode.
Who knows? Maybe in some of our lifetimes, the trout swimming in Silver Bow Creek might be the same trout that swam past the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork to spawn.

The Salish-Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille peoples’ historic name for the confluence area was “the place of the big bull trout.” While at this point in time, we should relish in the simple discovery of the Westslopes returning to the most contaminated reaches of the Clark Fork system, it certainly might be feasible that in future generations the words of the native people could again come true. After all, “if it can be recalled, it can be restored.”

We have a vision, a plan and a mission underway to clean up the Clark Fork watershed from its damaged condition. But what we also need to have, as much as or maybe even more than anything else, is patience.

As the end of the 2008 construction season closes on Silver Bow Creek, let’s have a look at the progress to date and the work to be performed in the near future: Volume of contaminated materials removed: 3,700,000 cubic yards
Miles of stream remediated and restored: 10 miles
Acres of floodplain remediated and restored: 950 acres
Percentage of Total Project Completed: 70%
The Next Six Months:
A new stream and floodplain will reach from Butte all the way downstream to the railroad trestles at the upstream end of Durant Canyon;
Almost one mile of new stream will be completed in the beginning reach of Subarea 4 (near Opportunity/MT Hwy 1);
The bid package for the first 2.5 miles of the Durant Canyon cleanup section will be released.

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