It has taken far too long already for a dangerous diversion dam on the Bitterroot River to be made safe. At this pace, the 4 1/2-mile stretch of river located between the Woodside and Tucker fishing access sites north of Corvallis will have to be closed again this summer - and perhaps the summer after that as well.
Montana must commit the necessary resources to fix the Supply Ditch Diversion Dam as soon as possible. Fortunately, three Montana lawmakers from Ravalli County and other county officials visited the site last week, providing hope that the problem is receiving much-needed attention and stands a chance of being resolved in the near future.
The hold-up, of course, is money. The estimated cost of improving the low-head dam in a way that would make it safe for boaters approaches half a million dollars. Various potential sources of funding are being considered, and that's fine. However, this fix cannot be allowed to drag on while money is scraped together. The Montana Legislature ought to make sure that the necessary funding is available.
The Supply Ditch Diversion Dam, located between the Woodside and Tucker fishing access sites north of Corvallis, has provided irrigation water to thousands of acres for decades. It only became a serious problem about six years ago, when the western channel of the river dried up and became impassable.
Since then, dozens of boaters have been unable to avoid the dam – despite the presence of upriver signs warning them of the hazard. Ravalli County Search and Rescue has spent too many nice summer days pulling capsized boaters from the water. In one case, a father was trapped in the backwater for nearly an hour with his two sons before they were rescued. One memorable eight-day stretch had the Corvallis Fire Department conducting three separate river rescues at the site.
Tragically, one of those incidents resulted in the drowning death of a 6-year-old girl.
Last week, state and county leaders stood near the dam and heard the girl's father retell the story of how his daughter, Joslyn, drowned in June 2013.
Wade Farrell is an experienced rafter who is familiar with the river. As he floated the river with family members, he saw the sign indicating danger ahead, but there simply wasn't enough time to pull the drift boat from the fast-moving water before it hit the low-head dam and was sucked under. The boat was then propelled downstream, throwing its occupants overboard. Joselyn, wearing a life jacket, was caught in the backwater.
This year, more signs were put up further upriver in the hope of providing more advance warning of the danger. Additionally, the stretch of river that includes the dam was closed entirely from April through the beginning of July.
The signs are certainly helpful, and the river closure undoubtedly prevented further loss of life. But the dam itself needs to be dealt with.
Last week, Leslie Nyce of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks described the design of the Supply Ditch Diversion Dam as common in the eastern United States, where such dams are known as "drowning machines."
The good news is that Montana has very few dams of this design. Further, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has determined the dangerous dam in Ravalli County its No. 1 priority status for renewable resource grants.
The Bitterroot Conservation District has already put in a request for $125,000 to help cover project costs, but even under best-case scenario, a lot of planning and design work has to be completed before actual construction can begin.
That's why state and county leaders ought to work together make sure the necessary funding is in place as soon as possible.