Demolishing Montana's Dams

Karen Knudsen near Bonner, Mont.

Karen Knudsen surveys the former site of Milltown Dam near Bonner, Mont.

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In March this year, Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, watched with her family as an excavator dug a trench next to Milltown Dam near Bonner, Mont. Water trickled, then gushed as the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers ran freely for the first time since 1908, when copper king William Clark impounded the rivers at their confluence. In 1985, the coalition formed to push for the dam's removal after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site.

Q Why demolish the dam?
A Piled behind it was a toxic soup of metals—copper, cadmium, zinc—that extended 120 miles up the watershed to the copper mines in Butte. High levels of arsenic in Milltown's drinking water were traced to those sediments. Also, the dam stopped native trout from reaching 6,000 square miles of spawning habitat. In 2005, after 20 years of negotiations, federal, tribal, and business officials finally authorized the demolition.

Q And after that?
A The EPA drew down the reservoir and rerouted the Clark Fork River into a bypass channel so contaminated dirt could be scooped out dry. Currently, train cars carry 4,500 tons of toxic sediments a day to an Arco waste repository.

Q How did you feel at the breaching?
A Overwhelmed. I had tears in my eyes; we all did. We are moving from a century of misuse and neglect to one of restoration. You can see the work going on right now off Interstate 90 east of Missoula.

Q Why is restoring rivers important?
A Rivers are our lifeblood. They provide drinking water, wildlife corridors, economic engines, and swimming holes. Healthy rivers are central to everything in the West.

Photography by Chad Harder

This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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