Almost every step taken by Gary Palm sent a small cloud of fine gray dust into the hot summer air as he strode Monday toward the NorthWestern Energy vehicles parked on the far side of what’s now a new channel of the Clark Fork River.
The dust was deposited during the spring floods, and it’s part of the mass re-arrangement of the natural habitat in the conservation area. Now that the floodwaters have receded, NorthWestern Energy finally can get crews in to repair a key 210,000-volt transmission line that dipped into the Clark Fork River at the height of the flooding.
Palm, Northwestern’s Missoula Division operations manager, paused to look at a bush where grasses and other materials in the floodwater were deposited as high as his waist.
“Just this week we could get in here to access our line; the water was still here,” Palm said. “The debris flows in the trees show how high the water came during the flood.”
NorthWestern brought in specially tracked vehicles due to the flood’s impacts. The silt was deposited where the water was stagnant. But where it flowed into new channels, the banks are cobbled and now are about 5 feet higher than before the flood.
“The most visible damage is on private property on the other side of the river,” said Butch Larcombe, a NWE spokesman. “But you can see some of the challenges created for us and for the city.”
Workers high in the air in bucket trucks are in the midst of replacing the damaged transmission line, which shut off automatically and rerouted power once it dropped into the river. They’ll also install six new power poles.
Currently, the stretch of the Clark Fork downstream of the Reserve Street Bridge to the uppermost boundary of the Kelly Island Fishing Access Site remains closed to floaters due to concerns about people getting caught on the line.
“We’ll keep the river closed until the lines are repaired,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Palm expects his work should wrap up in about three weeks. That’s the same length of time Morgan Valliant with Missoula Parks and Open Space Department thinks it will take to replace some of the 3-mile trail system that was washed away during the flooding and reopen the area.
Valliant noted that this is an active flood plain, where the water plays an important role in protecting the biodiversity. For example, he pointed to the nearby black cottonwood trees, which need the water to help distribute and feed their seeds. This isn’t the first time they’ve had to redo the trails, and Valliant expects it won’t be the last time, either.
“This is habitat that really thrives on disturbance,” Valliant said. “Everything down here evolved to have those floods. But it makes its own unique challenges to put human infrastructure there, like power lines or trail systems.”
The new Clark Fork River channel created by the flood has water flowing through it, and Valliant said it probably will be there year-round now. It effectively cuts the 120-acre conservation area in half, but the stream flow is shallow enough to walk across now.
“We are used to every few years shaking the Etch A Sketch and having to rebuild trails,” he added. “It’s significant this time that we lost the entire trail system rather than just portions.
“We have evolved over the years to the point where we have high-water trails and low-water trails, so we may have portions of the property only accessible in late July or during the winter.”
Larcombe said NorthWestern Energy also is considering relocating this power line due to the threat from floods.
“We do realize this is a flood-prone area and should do something, or at least consider it, but there’s a lot of water flowing under the power line, so to speak, before we get there,” Larcombe said.