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Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch

September 3, 2010

Cattle bone plated in copper crystals leached out of slicken through rainwater. The photo has not been color-corrected.

Today I got a chance to take a little tour around Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch between Warm Springs and Deer Lodge, Montana. The ranch, through which the Clark Fork River runs, was purchased in 2005 by a partnership including Missoula’s Clark Fork Coalition, a non-profit conservation group that’s been instrumental in any number of initiatives aimed at cleaning up the watershed.

What a conservation group is doing running a Montana ranch is probably a bit of a puzzle to area landowners, but it’s pretty straightforward, if complicated in practice: They’re experimenting with how to run an agricultural operation on the river in a manner that helps sustain the health of the watershed. It’s important work, since much of the Clark Fork winds through private ranching land, and since keeping the river healthy after cleanup crews have finished spending millions restoring it is one of the project’s biggest long-term challenges.

Bryce testing a well level in the middle of a slicken.

Bryce Andrews is the young guy—younger than me, anyhow—the Coalition has installed to manage the ranch, and he took some time today to show me around part of the ranch’s 2,300 deeded acres, 1,000 acres of state lease, and more than 20 square miles of shared Forest Service grazing allotment. He’s running 150 cow-calf pairs and six bulls on the property, and flood-irrigating 160 acres for wild grass and alfalfa hay. He let me tag along while he checked groundwater levels in half a dozen test wells near the river, a monitoring project designed to help determine what effect his irrigation techniques are having on the water table.

A huge slicken near the Clark Fork on Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch.

Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, like all the property lining the river in this area, has its share of slickens—creepy-looking dead zones where floodwaters have deposited concentrated tailings sediment chock full of copper, cadmium, arsenic and lead. Bryce showed me one huge one that was easy enough to get to, and that’s where we found the copper plated bone above, and several others like it. Apparently what happens is something dies out there, or animals drag in the bones of something that died somewhere else, and when rainfall collects in temporary puddles on the slicken, the copper in the soil leeches through the water and coats any porous objects that might be submerged.

Eventually, all up and down the river, these slickens will either be removed, or treated in place. Removal means state Department of Environmental Quality trucks cutting roads through productive agricultural land to the slicken sites, digging up enormous amounts of dirt (Bryce said the slicken area pictured here had a 4-foot test bore drilled without hitting clean soil), and trucking them out to the Opportunity Ponds. That soil will be replaced with clean donor soil trucked in from a property the state recently bought near Deer Lodge. The Deer Lodge property will have a substantial crater.

Less contaminated areas will be treated in place, which means tilling manure and lime—to temper the soil’s acidity—into the ground.

Crystallized copper salts on a slicken area.

Bryce showed me a collection of color-coded EPA maps identifying the ranch’s various areas and levels of contamination. Exposed tailings areas amounted to almost 25 acres. Areas deemed “slightly” but measurably impacted—these areas won’t be treated—amounted to almost 94 percent of the study area, which amounts to pretty much the entirety of the historical floodplain, which is huge.

Map showing block land management of the Dry Cottonwood Creek area. Imagine trying to get everyone on the same page.

Montana DEQ is still doing dirt-moving remediation work on Silver Bow Creek, upstream of the Warm Springs Ponds, and will eventually begin work on the river below the ponds, property by property. Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, with 4.5 miles of river frontage promising a full Montana season of work, is maybe fourth in line, though Bryce said the Coalition is lobbying DEQ to do it first—not because they want to get cleaned up first, but because they want DEQ to use their property, willingly offered, to work out any kinks in the process, serving as a trial run and a demonstration area for nearby local landowners. The guesstimate otherwise is that the trucks and backhoes will reach the Coalition property around 2013. It ought to be something to see, whenever it happens.

A portion of Warm Springs Ponds, studded with dead willows.

After I let Bryce get back to work I drove a ranch road up the ridge line through the higher-elevation property that constitutes most of the ranch and then back down through the canyon of Dry Cottonwood Creek itself, which actually has a trickle of water in it this late in the season, despite being historically perennial. From the ridge I could see all the way to the Anaconda smelter stack in the foothills above Opportunity, and the Warm Springs Ponds strung out like bright blue bulbs up the river. Coming back down Dry Cottonwood I could see the new riparian fencing the Coalition has built to keep cattle from trampling the creek banks—another experiment in water quality control.

Finally, leaving the ranch, I drove up the washboarded dirt Eastside Road, past the Warm Springs Ponds between me and the interstate, and eventually across 90 back into Opportunity, trying to wrap my brain around how enormous a project this restoration is, how it all fits together, and what it might look like in another 20 years.

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