NewsMissoula County


Clark Fork River use trends causing erosion, restoration plans pending

Clark Fork River banks to be restored, access points built
Posted at 2:04 PM, Dec 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 16:04:28-05

MISSOULA — There is a dropoff in the sidewalk under the south side of Higgins Bridge in downtown Missoula.

The erosion point is a good place to use caution if walking on the path.

Clark Fork River erosion point under Higgins Bridge

City of Missoula Parks & Trails Design/Development Specialist Nathan McLeod, says there are about 70 points like it along the urban stretch of the Clark Fork River and the cause is frequent river use.

Right now the Clark Fork River is bitterly cold and devoid of people, but in the summer it’s a different story.

“There's been just growing use of the Clark Fork River corridor — especially as it relates to downtown Missoula," Downtown Missoula Partnership executive director Linda McCarthy told MTN News.

On a hot summer day, there are many people enjoying the waters close to home - whether that’s surfing, swimming, or floating.

“Something that's been in the works, for maybe three years, when we really started to track the impact of what we call the tuber hatch. You know, all the people who float the river," McCarthy said.

Missoula Parks & Recreation 2015 report on Clark Fork River use

A 2015 report prepared by the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department, showcased that when temperatures were above 90 degrees, an average of 57 people per hour floated under the Madison Street Bridge. Tubers accounted for 70% of river users at that time, and a total of 14,000 river users were predicted for that summer.

But with the high use of the river, comes an impact to the riparian zone, or ecological interface between the land and the river. According to McLeod, the foot trails people walk on have been eroded into the riverbanks affecting water quality. And walking off the beaten path also damages the river's surrounding vegetation.

“When the Milltown Dam was removed years ago, river recreation exploded, and so the use of the river became way more intense than it was in the past," McLeod explained.

To remedy the damage that’s been done in recent years, the City of Missoula is working on a plan to restore riverbanks and formalize access points to the river.

“The river has such an important ecological function and also a recreation function. And so this project really tries to balance that," McLeod said.

Reconstruction could begin as soon as next year.