THAT TIME FORGOT
UM center studies damaged waterways
By CARY SHIMEK
February 1982 found young University of Montana scientists Bill Woessner and Johnnie Moore cold, wet and miserable. Accompanied by two graduate students — one a shivering hot-climate kid from India — they had skied onto the frozen Milltown Dam reservoir pulling a sled piled with science gear. It was 10 degrees and the Hellgate Canyon winds were whipping.
Using a $20 grant from the geology department to rent a chainsaw, they cut four 2-foot-wide holes in the ice. But they could only afford a short-bladed chainsaw, and the reservoir ice was about 24 inches thick, so they had to finish their holes by hammering with metal poles.
"It was cold," Moore recalls. "We were just covered with ice and cold water and the wind was blowing. It was totally miserable."
Punching through the ice, they used a grab sampler — which has two scoops that come together like jaws — to gather mud from the bottom of the reservoir. They sampled near shore and in deeper areas where the water was up to 15 feet.
Sidebar: Bad stuff runs through it
Why do this at such a hostile time of year? The science team was on the ice to solve a mystery — one that could affect the entire Clark Fork River system and the future of western Montana.
The Missoula County Health Department had discovered arsenic in tap water at nearby Milltown, a community five miles east of Missoula, and 35 families had been advised not to use their well water for drinking or cooking. Locals thought the contamination resulted from the nearby plywood plant. Other possible culprits included an old dump site, which contained some industrial waste, or perhaps a natural source of arsenic welling up from the fault that underlies the river valley.
But the frigid researchers knew that a 1975 study by a UM chemistry student had found elevated levels of copper, zinc and lead in crayfish living in the Milltown Reservoir — the pond formed behind Milltown Dam, which straddles the confluence of the Clark Fork River and the Blackfoot River of "A River Runs Through It" fame.
The student had discovered elevated metals but had never tested for arsenic. When Woessner and Moore finally found some money to get their samples tested in June 1982, arsenic levels ranged as high as 155 parts per million — six times greater than sediments already targeted for cleanup in Lake Michigan.
"We did the original work and identified the reservoir sediments as the source contaminating the groundwater that flowed to the affected wells and houses," Woessner says. As a hydrogeologist, he also mapped the water table under Milltown and suggested a new well site to resupply the townspeople with clean water. By 1984 Milltown homes had arsenic-free tap water.
But that frozen February day started a snowball of ramifications that are still being felt. It led to the Milltown Reservoir being named a Superfund site, and other sites on or near the damaged Clark Fork River followed — a smelter site in Anaconda, the Montana Pole site in Butte and the entire river and flood plain between Warm Springs and Milltown Reservoir. All these areas became collectively known as the Clark Fork River Superfund Site, the nation's largest.
And now steps are being taken to improve the function of the Clark Fork, which has been hammered by a century-plus of mining and smelting contamination, municipal waste and more. Superfund cleanup efforts are ongoing in the Butte area, and in April 2003 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Environmental Quality recommended removing Milltown Dam and the contaminated sediment behind it.
Montana has 177,000 miles of rivers, with 8,900 miles in poor condition and 1,300 directly impacted by mining. UM has a prime example, the Clark Fork River, flowing right beside campus. People want to fix such polluted waterways, but river restoration is a new and tricky business.
Now middle-aged, Woessner and Moore tossed around ideas for 15 years about how to get the University more involved in what was happening in the Clark Fork Superfund Site. For after they helped find clean drinking water for Milltown, private consulting groups and Atlantic Richfield Co. — the company responsible for Clark Fork environmental cleanup — took over the Milltown research and data collections going on in the river basin.
UM did have some formal involvement. Moore conducted a 1984 EPA study that tracked the source of the metal contaminates in the Milltown Reservoir 120 miles upstream to the Butte-Anaconda mining area.
"Nobody at that time considered that it was reasonable you could get contamination
so far away," Moore says. "We sampled soils and cutbanks all along
the Clark Fork River from Milltown to the Deer Lodge Valley. Concentrations
of contaminates got higher as you moved upstream. You could see (mine) tailings
in the banks all the way downstream
Moore also kept graduate students working on research projects involving the Clark Fork, but there was no focus for University science studying the Superfund site. So in November 2002 Woessner and Moore got state Board of Regents approval for the UM-based Center for Riverine Science and Stream Re-naturalization. The University then approved a one-time grant of $65,000 to fund a half-time director and assistant to get the center rolling. The river organization is headquartered in UM's geology department, and must find its own resources for future funding.
Woessner, the center director, says the new organization acts as a nucleus to focus interdisciplinary teaching and research on natural and impacted streams. The center will research and assess stream modification projects, as well as develop creative ways to physically, geochemically and biologically restore function to damaged river systems.
"This is an area where The University of Montana can be a leader," Woessner says. "We already have very good people in multiple departments and units working on this at the national and international level, and by building on our strengths we can make a major contribution to this field."
The center is designed to link the efforts of scientists across the UM system doing water-related research. Initial partners are located at the main Missoula campus, the Flathead Lake Biological Station, Montana Tech in Butte and the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in Butte. New partners will be brought on board as the center grows.
"There are millions of dollars being spent in Montana and across the country on what we call stream restoration," Woessner says, "but very little of that goes into assessment; most goes into dirt moving. Over $80 million is committed to re-naturalization of mining-impacted streams in western Montana, and state and federal land management and fishery projects spend over $2 million annually. The center could become a draw for this research funding."
He says river restoration projects often create a channel that looks like a stream, acts like a stream, but doesn't function like a stream when it's all finished. It doesn't restore the groundwater-surface water interactions; it doesn't restore the chemical fluxes from the surface and groundwater. It may be an engineered structure that looks right — one that carries enough water and has the right number of curves. Those are all important, but does it create the right fish or riparian habitat?
an environmental geochemist, says it's critical to have a
wide spectrum of experts from many disciplines involved in
river restoration because rivers are incredibly important
and complex — often the drivers
of biodiversity in landscapes.
Moore says a key goal of the center's research is trying to find ways to manipulate rivers to improve their function. But he says most rivers realistically will never be restored to pre-European-settlement conditions. They have too many demands on them, such as irrigation, hydro-power and municipal uses. But he believes some function can be restored.
While the Clark Fork River provides the center with an excellent natural laboratory for stream restoration right in its backyard, the UM researchers say their work will have applications across the nation and around the world. In the United States alone, 235,000 river miles have been channelized, 25,000 miles have been dredged and more than 600,000 miles are impounded behind dams. There are Clark Forks everywhere.
Woessner says millions of dollars are available for river restoration work, and he would like the center to develop substantial funding to help with such projects. If someone wants to develop a five-mile section of stream to improve bull trout habitat, for example, the center would partner with the people designing the restoration work and monitor the physical, chemical and geologic aspects of the project before and after.
"We'll be able to assess afterwards what was accomplished," he says. "Then we'll use that information to plan the next project. So we basically learn from these assessments and incorporate that into being better stewards of our river resources."
Moore says, "Our hope is that this center is the beginning of something that can start addressing really complex problems relating to rivers."
The river center could become an economic boon for Montana, Woessner says, as it helps put people to work doing river restoration in the state and elsewhere. He says UM students will receive training and funding for river restoration work through the center. Hopefully jobs also would be created for average Montana citizens living near impacted streams.
More information about the riverine science center is available online at www.umt.edu/rivercenter. The center hosted its first River Center Workshop Sept. 25-26. It was titled "Assessing and Re-naturalizing Streams Impacted by Mining."
Bringing Down the Dam
EPA and Montana DEQ in April recommended removing 2.6 million
cubic yards of contaminated sediment behind the dam and placing
it in a lined repository less than a mile downstream from
the dam, which would be torn down. The work would begin in
2006 and take about three years at an estimated cost of $95
million. The plan would return the confluence of the Clark
Fork and Blackfoot rivers to a free-flowing state with
"Nothing like this has ever been done before," Woessner says. "I don't care what people tell you, but no one has removed a dam of this size with contaminated sediments behind it. This isn't a small river — during runoff it has 20,000 cubic feet per second running through it. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how this should happen."
Both Moore and Woessner have concerns about the dam-removal process. They believe the cart may be in front of the horse since more scientific appraisal of the complex Milltown site wasn't done before the decision was made to remove the dam.
Woessner says whatever is done should be intensely evaluated and assessed so river restorers can do adaptive management — adjusting their plans as new data comes in and they learn from the process.
He says the Milltown Dam shelters Missoula and other areas somewhat from arsenic and heavy metals coming down the river.
"We have to do things so the water supply of Missoula is not impacted by this operation," he says. "The river water recharges our groundwater system here. What happens if we change the chemistry in the Clark Fork with the dam removal and (pollution) concentrations in wells climb above drinking-water standards? What is our contingency plan? Under what conditions would this happen? We have to make sure we don't perturb this system and suddenly things get a lot worse."
Moore contends that the initial dam removal plan might not go far enough, since it calls for removing only 2.9 million cubic yards of about 8 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment actually sequestered behind the dam. He also describes the initial plan of moving the sediments a few hundred yards downstream to a depository on the river flood plain as "crazy."
"I would argue that if you do anything with Milltown, it needs to go upstream to the big repositories already there (near Anaconda and Butte)," he says. "It will cost more, but if you dig up a bunch of sediment and put it on the Clark Fork River terrace a quarter mile away, someday that metal is going back into the river. It's too unstable next to the river."
Both Moore and Woessner agree that researchers in UM's river center will learn a lot from what happens with the Milltown Dam. With about 80,000 dams scattered across the United States — some ripe for removal — Milltown could become the template for how to safely remove a dam with contaminated sediment behind it and how to restore river functions. Time will tell.
The Alchemy of Healthy Rivers
Moore finally brought up Spain's Guadimar River, where in April 1998 a large tailings dam ruptured near the Aznalcollar mine, impacting a 40-mile stretch of river and polluting 11,500 acres in the area.
"It was a major disaster," Moore says. "The entire flood plain was polluted, and large numbers of fish were killed."
He says the Spanish government came in and took control of the contaminated areas in a way that would be highly unlikely in the United States, since most of the impacted areas in Spain were privately owned. Most of the contaminated sediment was removed, and the government cleared out all orchards and crops — which were contaminated — paid off area farmers and created what they call a "green corridor" in the river's riparian zone. The Spaniards also are planting natural vegetation and trying to bring natural habitat back in the corridor.
"Here we try to work with landowners and aren't going to change our land-use practices," Moore says. "But their approach will probably go a long way toward restoring the river. But even with everything they've done, it's difficult to get all the contaminants out."
He says actions now being taken at Montana's Silver Bow Creek, a Clark Fork headwater, are likely the largest river restoration project in the world right now from the standpoint of removing mining wastes and trying to remediate the pollutants.
"Along with the bulldozers and backhoes, if you do a lot of good science, we'll know a lot more about how to deal with rivers all over the world," he says.
Moore also is involved with the CALFED project in California — an effort to restore function to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which has been heavily impacted by gold mining and mercury contamination. A major goal there is salmon recovery.
Moore would like to see Montana emulate California somewhat when it comes to river restoration work, because in that state a certain percentage of all restoration funds must be used for scientific evaluations of the projects.
"Every project has to have mandated science done to discover whether it is working or not working," Moore says. "In the long run this will save you money and from redoing the project."
He says that while the Clark Fork River is confronted with tough environmental issues, it's far from the worst example on the planet. In Russia, for example, there are rivers and lakes that are radioactive — places where human birthrates are negative because of contamination. Moore knows of a Russian scientist who toured the Clark Fork drainage a few years ago and basically said, "What's wrong with you guys? You have way too much money if this is where you are putting it." He thought there wasn't a problem.
The researchers hope UM's new river science center can help improve function of the Clark Fork, but they say the river never will return to the pristine condition of pre-European-settlement times. A century-plus of mining has changed the river forever. The removal of Milltown Dam should help — as should ongoing and planned river restoration efforts — but unknown levels of arsenic and heavy metals will continue sluicing down the Clark Fork as natural stream processes continue.
Moore said rivers can cleanse themselves over the centuries. In fact, he had a graduate student who did one aspect of his master's thesis on how long it would take the Clark Fork to erode all the contaminated material that has been deposited in the Deer Lodge Valley, if the river were allowed by humankind to rechannel itself naturally and crisscross the flood plain. He found that under ideal conditions all the contaminants would be eroded once in 1,000 years, which still wouldn't completely clean the river. The river would need tens of thousands of years to clean itself naturally.
"So we're never going to get it back," Moore says, "but it's not naive, with the right science, to think that we can make it better."