Clark Fork

A portion of the Clark Fork River south of Deer Lodge is pictured. 

Naturally, Trout Unlimited’s work benefits trout and coldwater streams. Sometimes we acknowledge how our work benefits recreation, the economy and, at times, the human spirit. Rarely do we have the chance to highlight how restoring a stream improves people’s vital infrastructure and fills basic needs even more than it helps trout. The Flat Creek tributary of the middle Clark Fork River in western Montana is that sort of exception.

Flat Creek is a classic Montana stream. Not in the blue-ribbon trout stream sense, rather unfortunately, in the legacy of industrial mining sense. Early 20th century mining in the hills adjacent to Flat Creek’s nine-mile tumble from its headwaters to its mouth at the town of Superior have left it severely degraded and polluted. Mill tailings and waste rock from the ASARCO Iron Mountain Mine and Mill are heaped along 1.5 miles of Flat Creek’s wooded banks, marring its floodplain and leaching the usual cocktail of heavy metals associated with hardrock mining. Since the 1940s, Flat Creek served as a water supply for Superior. The current, dilapidated system to filter Flat Creek water fails to render the water potable, so it’s on standby as an emergency, back-up system.

Because of contamination, Flat Creek has earned Superfund status. As part of administering Superfund, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified ASARCO as the party liable for cleanup. In a bankruptcy settlement ASARCO met its liability by paying the state to remediate upper Flat Creek. Another portion of settlement money went to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Flat Creek’s lower, polluted stretch. The Forest Service began contracting out cleanup of the site in 2012. Cleanup is moving forward with Trout Unlimited and the Forest Service.

Removing Flat Creek tailings will improve water quality, decrease sediment sources, and establish a functional floodplain, all of which makes for better trout habitat. Flat Creek will once again contribute cold, clean water to the Clark Fork. The creek will never attract anglers for its fishery. Yet the benefits to people are significant.

Once Flat Creek is restored, it will be a viable backup system for Superior. Or, as the county’s chief sanitarian put it, “it could help augment the town’s water supply,” making residents’ water more reliable. The current system of pumping groundwater from three wells depends on 30-year old, above-ground pumps that need to be replaced soon. Full cleanup of Flat Creek could allow the town to explore using a spring water well in the upper reaches of Flat Creek drainage, a true headwater source protected by the Clean Water Act.

In short, Trout Unlimited’s work transforms federal environmental regulations, programs and money into more trout in the headwaters of the Columbia River system. More importantly, in this case, clean water is secured for a rural population.

Getting rid of or cutting federal programs that help Trout Unlimited do its work, such as Superfund and federal mine remediation grants would severely undercut our ability to make a difference for fisheries, coldwater habitats and people. Removing or loosening Clean Water Act regulations on small streams is the equivalent of the federal government saying it doesn’t care about the quality of water for things like our prized Montana fisheries or rural communities.

So let’s keep clean water rules in place. And keep the budgets that fund clean water projects intact. As Paul Parson, Trout Unlimited mine restoration engineer, likes to say, “those budgets are the ‘get ‘er done’ part of clean water.” In Montana, we like to ‘get ‘er done.’ That definitely includes protecting clean water.

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David Brooks is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.

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