After a year of negotiations, a plan to spend $116.5 million fixing Clark Fork River Basin pollution damage received the governor's signature on Monday.
That clears the way for communities from Butte to Missoula to restore or replace lands damaged by a century's worth of toxic waste from Anaconda Co. smelters and mines. Since 2000, state agencies have been spending interest from the cleanup fund on piecemeal projects in the upper river basin. The new plan gets away from the baby-step approach and allows long-range tasks to go forward.
"We know we have more needs than we have dollars for the basin," said Carol Fox of the Natural Resource Damage Program, which supervises the settlement funds from a lawsuit between the state of Montana and Atlantic Richfield Co., the mining company's legacy corporation. "This gets away from opportunistic annual grants, and goes to directing dollars to priority areas. That way we get the best benefit and return on investment, a lot more predictability, and communities can leverage their money better."
One year ago, the Upper Clark Fork Basin Restoration Council advisory board submitted a version of the plan for approval. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer delayed it until after the 2011 legislative session was finished, and then proposed several changes. The new version got Schweitzer's signature on Monday.
The plan splits spending into three pots. The first share (36 percent) goes to replacing contaminated drinking water supplies in Butte and Anaconda. Those projects have been difficult to manage under the annual grant system because of their scale and complexity.
"Now they don't have to every year wonder if they're going to get X dollars for this phase of the project," said Granite County Commissioner Maureen Connor, one of the advisory council members who helped negotiate the final agreement. "Now they can plan construction work for next three to five years out."
The rest of the money is split between aquatics (39 percent to work on the upper Clark Fork, its tributary streams and fisheries) and terrestrial needs (25 percent for replacing wildlife habitat damaged by mine pollution). For the past several years, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks researchers have been prioritizing places in the basin that need the most help.
"So if a stream is really nasty but will never have enough flow to contribute a lot of water to the river, it won't be as high a priority as one that has a large flow and aquatic habitat that can be improved," Connor said. Terrestrial money also helped purchase several wildlife management areas to help with bighorn sheep and elk range.
Trustees also opted to hold a 15 percent reserve of the aquatic and terrestrial money for 20 years. That will ensure some money remains available for projects that didn't work out as planned or for new problems that develop down the road.
The to-do list isn't finalized yet. The general rules for submitting spending plans will go before the public in February. By October, a draft restoration plan for using most of the money should be ready for public review. Some time-sensitive projects should also get a green light early next year.
"You have to give credit to all the people who stuck with this for so long," Connor said. "Working in both the state and federal arena with lawsuit sideboards, it would have been easy to throw your hands up and say it's too complicated. It's good to see how the water connects everybody."