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Ambitious Clark Fork River Project in Missoula eyes restoration, recreation

Clark Fork River
Posted at 9:26 AM, Mar 20, 2023

MISSOULA - The city and a team of state and local partners will turn their focus to a stretch of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula in a bid to protect infrastructure from channel migration, restore habitat and possibly add a new recreational feature to the waterway.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency has agreed to contribute $300,000 in tax increment to hire a consultant capable of pulling the project together, though city officials admit it may be a challenge given the number of goals.

“We've been talking about this for almost two years now and we've got some project goals,” said Morgan Valiant, the city's conservation lands manager. “This is a complex project. It's a comprehensive look at this stretch of river, which is what we need to do rather than a bunch of independent, smaller projects.”

The city last year acquired the old Flynn-Lowney Ditch and completed a restoration plan that looks to improve instream river conditions and address riverbank erosion.

It also considered improvements to recreation, including the challenging hydraulics at the Silver Park boat ramp and protecting Broadway Island — one of the city's newest parks.

Ellen Buchanan, director of MRA, said the next step requires a plan that brings all the pieces together. It will include engineering, permitting, and design work within the river from the Montana Rail Link trestle at Caras Park to the California Street Bridge, located just below Silver Park.

“We've got some really severe bank erosion behind the baseball stadium that's starting to threaten the trail. You've got bank issues all through that stretch of river,” Buchanan said. “It accomplishes a whole myriad of things that are important along that stretch of the river.”

Aside from protecting infrastructure from erosion and restoring habitat, the plan could also include a recreational component. Brennan's Wave, located upriver, remains a popular attraction and a second, similar feature has been discussed at Broadway Island where the river steps down in a series of small rapids.

With a number of goals in mind, the city has spent the past two years building a coalition of partners that include Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Trout Unlimited and various city departments.

With the partnership now in place, Valliant said the city is ready to hire a consultant to develop a comprehensive plan, including the engineering and design work.

“Having that nonprofit partnership is really critical to help us gain capacity and bring in that funding,” said Valliant. “I do believe this will be the biggest river project our city has tried to take on since building the levy system downtown to expand downtown. It's one that could have national significance.”

Montana Trout Unlimited will serve as the project's lead. The organization has partnered with the city on a number of other projects, including the removal of Rattlesnake Dam, restoration of Rattlesnake Creek, and the ongoing study of the Rattlesnake Wilderness dams.

“Our primary issue with this site starting off was dealing with fish entrapment issues in (Flynn-Lowney) ditch,” said Rob Roberts with Trout Unlimited. “This is an exciting opportunity. It opens up all these possibilities where we're integrating recreation, restoration, and flood resiliency — all these issues happening in this river corridor.”

The Missoula City Council last spring approved MRA's exit plan for Urban Renewal District II. The plan listed a number of projects the city wants to achieve before the district sunsets, such as lighting the Bitterroot Branch Trail and converting the trestle over the river into a public bridge and trail extension.

It also listed improvements to the river corridor.

“This is one of the major projects on our strategic exit plan – it's the second top priority,” said Buchanan. “These are things identified in our exit plan that will not happen without the availability of TIF funding.”