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Lucky #7

December 17, 2010

Confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers near Milltown, Montana, looking upstream.

On Thursday, December 16, at about noon, the Clark Fork River was, to a manner of thinking, put back where it belongs. It was restored, at least, to a conscientious approximation of the floodplain it occupied a little over a hundred years ago, before the Milltown dam was built and the Milltown reservoir filled in 1908, and before the reservoir was drained and dam removed over the past several years.

Blocking the Clark Fork out of its temporary diversion channel and into its reconstructed floodplain.

A channel is born. The Clark Fork River (brown, long-diverted version) joins the blue Blackfoot, sort of, for the first time in a century.

To drain the reservoir (so they could scoop out the toxic sediments beneath it), engineers intercepted the incoming river a mile or so upstream and shunted it into an artificial channel skirting the plain.

Large-scale earthmoving work has been going on ever since, removing the most dangerous of the toxic sediments, shipping them upstream to the Opportunity Ponds waste repository, and grading and sculpting the remaining plain into the seed of a natural(seeming) riparian corridor.

In the photo above you can see how all the pieces come together. The fat water at lower left is the Clark Fork below its confluence with the Blackfoot. The thin water exiting frame-left is the same Clark Fork, headed into Missoula, it’s just trickling around an ice island.

The water coming in from top left, under the bridge, is the Blackfoot, which looks smaller than it is because it’s pinched with ice.

The water that first joins the Blackfoot, coming out of a straight channel that parallels the highway, is the Clark Fork in its temporary artificial channel. The more serpentine channel just below that, the one that just barely connects with the fatwater through a little ice delta, is the new, natural Clark Fork just beginning to flow.

Looking upstream across the reconstructed Clark Fork floodplain.

It’s completely illogical, but what I wanted to see, from up above on the bluff, was a tsunami-sized wall of water come crashing down the valley. As fraught with resonance as this reconfluence is, it’s not much to look at.

Driving from Missoula back to Anaconda the next day, the new channel was flowing with vigor, and the drained artificial channel was slick mud and puddles. It’ll be backfilled. I wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see a pullout and historical marker planted there.

Lucky #7 because this is the seventh and presumably last time in the remediation/restoration/reclamation process that the Clark Fork has been moved from one place to another so it could be fixed. It’s almost the riverine equivalent of quadruple bypass surgery, twice. And now it gets to rest, more or less, until spring flood. A lot of people will be curious to see where the river gets up and goes then.

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