CORVALLIS – As state legislators and other county officials gathered this week alongside a dangerous diversion dam north of Corvallis, one man walked a short ways upstream.
Wade Farrell stared at the place where he first saw a sign that indicated there was danger ahead on a nice June day in 2013.
“There was no way to get out by the time I saw that,” Farrell said. “There was a big tree on this side of the river. We could really see the concrete dam. The water was just moving fast enough that you couldn’t get out.”
At that time, there hadn’t been any circulated reports about the dangers lurking at the low-head dam. From the river’s view, the drop didn’t look like much.
Farrell grew up in the Bitterroot and had floated nearly every other section of the river. He had never been on this section of river before that day.
“I didn’t really know that this dam was even here,” he said.
The experienced oarsman was unable to keep the drift boat filled with family members from going over the low-head dam. The recirculating hydraulic current immediately below the dam sucked the boat back parallel against the structure. They immediately began to take on water.
Farrell’s sister, Deann, remembers yelling at her brother to row. He yelled back that he’d lost an oar. The boat sunk, then shot downstream, knocking everyone out.
Wade’s daughter, 6-year-old Joslyn, was caught in the recirculating current below the dam and drowned.
“It was her life jacket that killed her,” Farrell said. “She just kept tumbling over and over and over again.”
Three different times, he ran upstream and swam down over the dam in an attempt to rescue her.
As he watches, a bottle bobs to the top of whitewater right behind the dam and then it disappears back underneath the water.
“See that bottle,” he said. “That’s what the life jacket did to her.”
The Farrells were part of a group of people, including three Ravalli County legislators, who visited the Supply Ditch Diversion Dam on Wednesday afternoon.
The dam has been rated as the No. 1 priority for funding in this year’s round of state renewable resource grants by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The Bitterroot Conservation District requested $125,000 from the state program to partially pay for a project that would make the low-head dam safer for boaters.
The estimated cost of the completed project is $478,362.
Hans McPherson is chairman of the Supply Ditch Irrigation Co. He told those who gathered that there wasn’t much known about the history of the structure.
“I read the minutes between 1917 and 1940, and there was no mention of it,” he said.
The best guess is that it was built in the 1930s, probably by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The diversion provides irrigation water to 8,000 to 9,000 acres.
McPherson said the ditch company operates on about a $60,000 annual operations budget.
“We’re not a big rich ditch company,” he said. “We’re barely able to pay the help and expenses.”
Molly Skorpik of Morrison-Maierle said there are a number of other potential funding sources to help pay for the project, including the Supply Ditch Association.
Under a list of potential funding sources, Skorpik included a line item for about $146,000 called “legislative request/private fundraising.”
“Right now, we don’t know where that’s going to come from,” Skorpik said.
Once the funding comes together, Skorpik said the design work, permitting and bidding will need to take place before actual construction can get underway. If everything came together perfectly, construction could get underway next winter.
The earliest estimates say it will take somewhere between 125 and 165 yards of large rock to reduce the drop of the water behind the dam enough to eliminate the dangerous hydraulic roller. Much of that rock will be grouted together to ensure that it doesn’t wash downstream.
Plans also call for incorporating a boat path through the dam for easier passage for floaters.
“We still have quite a few steps to go through to make this happen,” Skorpik said.
Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman said people need to understand that the ditch company hasn’t been remiss in its responsibilities.
“This is a physical situation that’s not the result of any lack of operational maintenance from the Supply Ditch,” Iman said.
Up until about five or six years ago, most of the river ran down a channel west of the diversion dam. That western channel is now nearly dry during the bulk of the floating season.
Leslie Nyce of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said these kinds of low-head irrigation structures are very common in the eastern United States.
“Back there, they are known as drowning machines,” Nyce said. “They are classically known as being dangerous.”
There are not nearly as many in Montana. This is the only one of its kind in Ravalli County.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said it was good that this contingent of legislators could see for themselves what’s at stake.
“If people ask us now, we’ll be able to tell them what we’ve seen,” Thomas said.
Deann Farrell said her family looks forward to the time when it’s no longer a danger to people floating on the river.
“It will be a wonderful day when that happens,” she said. “We’ll come and float it when it does.”