HAMILTON – The warning signs about a dangerous diversion dam on the Bitterroot River that claimed the life of a 6-year-old girl in 2013 started coming down Thursday.
With snow falling at the Woodside Fishing Access Site, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Chris Clancy removed a large red sign that warned about a diversion dam that has endangered floaters for the past five years.
Just downstream, a construction company from Butte was putting the finishing touches on a project that topped $500,000 to make the Supply Ditch Diversion Dam safer.
It was just the first of many signs that Clancy will remove over the next few days in preparation for the upcoming skwala hatch that attracts fishermen from all over the country to the Bitterroot River.
He admitted to a bit of hesitancy due the dam’s dangerous legacy.
“In a way, it’s kind of hard to take these signs down,” Clancy said. “When the accidents were happening at the dam, it was just so dangerous. Pat (Saffel) and I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it.”
The danger was caused by a hole directly downstream from the low-head diversion dam that created a re-circulating hydraulic current that trapped unwary floaters up against the structure located about three miles downstream from the Woodside Fishing Access Site.
The construction project filled in the hole with large rock that was grouted together for long term stability. While the best place to cross the structure will be on its left side, the hydraulic re-circulating current should be non-existent along the structure’s entire length.
Clancy visited the site recently. At the current flows, the dam looks relatively tranquil.
“We also know that it was the most dangerous when flows were three to 10 times as much as what we have now,” Clancy said. “Until I can see it with my own eyes under those kinds of flows, I’m still going to be a little worried.”
Initially, Clancy and others put up several signs warning floaters about the dangerous dam. As the accidents continued, the signs got larger and more abundant.
“We eventually went the Wall Drug route,” he said.
There were signs placed at upstream fishing access sites as well as a number alongside the bank that warned floaters of the dam and told them to be prepared to portage around it.
Clancy hopes that floaters will continue to be careful when crossing the structure.
“It would be nice if everyone would pull off on the left side and scout the structure before floating over it,” he said. “From upstream, it appears to have a flat profile. If a tree happens to wash down, you wouldn’t be able to see it until you got to the lip of the dam. By then, it would be too late.”
With floating season just around the corner, Clancy wants people to remember that the Bitterroot River is considered one of the most dangerous in the state to float.
“People need to be very cautious when they are floating the Bitterroot,” he said. “I always do a lot of scouting when I go floating.”
The danger on the Bitterroot comes from the large number of trees that tend to topple into the river during high water.
Clancy said it’s a good idea to stop by a local fly shop before floating any section of the river to learn about any new hazards.
It’s also good to remember that those hazards will present themselves in different ways as the flows in the river fluctuate.
“When the river gets shallower, sometimes there’s not enough water to row around a hazard,” he said. “It can be totally different than what people see during high water.
“It really pays to be cautious,” Clancy said. “You can get in trouble very quickly.”