Helping hand to fish: Butte sends Silver Lake water to upper Clark Fork

Helping hand to fish: Butte sends Silver Lake water to upper Clark Fork

Source: Montana Standard
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Cold, clear mountain water from Silver Lake hit the thirsty lower Warm Springs Creek on its way to the even thirstier upper Clark Fork River Wednesday.

Using settlement money garnered from its lawsuit in the 1990s against Atlantic Richfield Co., the state is paying Butte-Silver Bow County $11,607 for one week of pumping about 16 million gallons each day of Silver Lake water to the degraded system downstream of Anaconda. Butte-Silver Bow owns the water rights to Silver Lake. The state’s cost reimburses the county for the amount necessary for electrical and labor expenses the county will incur.

If all goes well, then the state is expected to shell out an additional $7,105 of settlement money to the county to pay for a second week of clear, cold mountain water to make its way down into the depleted lower Warm Springs Creek and the upper Clark Fork River. Butte-Silver Bow Public Works Director Dave Schultz said once the pumps are running, it doesn’t cost as much to keep them going, which is why the second week is expected to be less expensive.

The amount going into the river each day is about as much as Butte uses on a daily basis this time of year, Schultz said.

The effort is a pilot project aimed at improving critical habitat for native Bull trout, which are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jason Lindstrom, fisheries biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that even though the pilot project is short-term, he believes that once 25 to 30 cubic feet per second hits the troubled waterways, the benefits to the fish will be immediate.

Stan Bradshaw, Trout Unlimited project manager, said he hopes this is just the beginning. The joint effort to put water into the beleaguered upper Clark Fork system has been years in the making.

At this time of year, the water in the upper Clark Fork is pushing 80 degrees, Lindstrom said. The combination of hotter temperatures due to climate change and irrigation takes a toll on the river and that, in turn, takes a toll on the native fish.

Bull trout, which require pristine, cold water, suffer due to low flows and high temperatures.

Without some kind of effort, the Bull trout that live in upper Warm Springs Creek might not survive in the long term.

“It’s not an unhealthy population but it’s not a robust one either. They’re hanging on. We’re trying to enable them to persist moving forward. They like connected habitat and move the long distances they require,” Lindstrom said.

But the additional water flows won’t solve all of the Bull trout’s problems in the upper Clark Fork.

Heavy metal deposits left behind by the 1908 Flood washing mining and smelting waste downstream mean more heavy metals in the river. The state has been working to remove the metals, but it still has years of work before the cleanup work will be complete.

Native fish – Bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout – need “the cleanest of the clean” water, said Lindstrom.

But that, says Casey Hackathorn, Upper Clark Fork program manager for Trout Unlimited, is not a reason to despair.

“Doing one action isn’t going to fix everything, but fish need water so it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Hackathorn said.