Reflections on Milltown Dam

March 27, 2018

Dr. Chris Brick reflects on the removal of the Milltown Dam. Chris was the CFC Science Director from 2001 until 2017.

Some of us were hoping for dynamite, but Milltown Dam didn’t go out with a bang. Instead, on a cold, blustery March day ten years ago, an excavator slowly scooped an earthen plug from a channel dug through the footprint of the demolished powerhouse. Water began to trickle. Within a few minutes, the pull of gravity and easy erosion produced a gusher of turbid water that ripped through the former Milltown Dam and into history. For the first time in 100 years, the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers ran free at their confluence. It was, as they say, a watershed moment.

Milltown Dam right before the breach
Milltown Dam right before the breach.

Dozens of us watched from the riverbank, and hundreds more watched from the bluff above. A helicopter hovered, politicians pontificated, and the Clark Fork Coalition’s Dam Cam recorded the moment for posterity. I told a reporter that I felt like an eight-year old kid waiting for Christmas. I still remember that giddy feeling.

The breach was a culmination of two decades of Superfund process: studies, proposed plans, lobbying, campaigning, public input, and eventually a final plan to remove the ageing Milltown Dam and the copper and arsenic-laden sediment behind it. In retrospect, it seems like it should have been an easy decision to make. Who wouldn’t want to remove a dam that threatened the river downstream with millions of tons of contaminated sediment, polluted groundwater, blocked trout migration, and produced too little power to pay for itself?  But it wasn’t easy. There were political, social, economic, and environmental issues. Plenty of people thought it was a stupid idea. I thought it was a fascinating science problem.

2008 CFC Staff at Milltown Dam
Then CFC staff Chris Brick, Stacy Rogge, Tracy Stone-Manning, and Karen Knudsen at the breach of Milltown Dam in 2008.

I joined the Clark Fork Coalition as staff scientist in 2001, just as the Milltown issue was peaking. The Environmental Protection Agency was developing a new proposed plan. My colleagues were working a hugely successful campaign to raise public awareness and support for dam removal. Yet from my perspective, much as I wanted the dam gone, and despite twenty years of investigation, there were unanswered questions about the environmental safety of removing it. Would dam removal in a Superfund site amid two major rivers create more problems than it solved? Yet it was clear that dam removal was the best long-term solution, and that risks could be mitigated.

Ten years later, we know it was the right call. We knew it when trout began migrating past the former dam site to spawn almost immediately after the breach. We knew it when groundwater in some polluted wells became clean enough to drink. We knew it when willows and cottonwoods sprouted in abundance after the flood in 2011. It’s true there was also some short-term pain: the floodplain and its habitat were denuded and rebuilt from scratch, aquatic life in the Clark Fork downstream suffered during the first post-breach year, the reconstructed Blackfoot bridge piers were too large and dangerous, and the Milltown sediment was too toxic to grow grass at the repository in Opportunity. There were other problems too, but thankfully, most issues are now resolved, or in the case of the bridge piers, about to be fixed. Also, in the good news department, the new Milltown State Park will be finished this year.

In many ways, the powerhouse breach in 2008 was only the beginning. It took four or five more years to remove the rest of the dam and the sediment, to reconstruct the river, to restore the floodplain. In all, I was involved in the project for over 10 years – many folks worked on it even longer. We all had our roles, and I think the project was ultimately successful because of so much community involvement, both for and against. I was privileged to be a part of a project that made a lasting contribution, and I was especially privileged to work on it with so many good people, from government people at all levels, to community groups, to citizens. We all made a difference.

Milltown Dam before and after

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