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Shaft on gate broke, halting water flow to Madison River; volunteers gather to rescue fish
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Shaft on gate broke, halting water flow to Madison River; volunteers gather to rescue fish

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The failure of a solid metal shaft that dropped a gate on Hebgen Lake Dam is responsible for cutting off water to the upper Madison River early Tuesday morning, according to dam owners NorthWestern Energy.

"Typically, in my experience, these things don't fail because they wore out ... it would be some other driver," Jeremy Clotfelter, director of hydro operations for NorthWestern, said in a Zoom press conference Wednesday.

The problem resulted in a dramatic and fast plunge in river flows from about 650 cubic feet per second to 195 cfs, leaving fish stranded and dying as well as exposing brown trout eggs laid in the river’s gravel this fall.

NorthWestern said the problem interferes with the ability of dam operators to release water, although some water was temporarily flushed over the dam’s spillway. The release Wednesday morning increased flows only slightly, to 248 cfs, because the reservoir is so low due to a dry summer. 

Anaconda Foundry Fabrication Co. worked overnight to build a replacement part that was enroute to the dam Wednesday afternoon, Clotfelter said. If all goes well the part could be installed underwater Wednesday evening and flows restored immediately afterward, he added. If that fails, a backup plan to use another gate would be initiated, but that would temporarily reduce flows on the river even further, he said.

Stranded sculpin

A stranded sculpin rests in the rocks of the Madison River.

Bob Rowe, CEO of NorthWestern, told a group gathered in Ennis on Wednesday morning that his company’s employees were “really devastated by what’s happened.” The comments were captured on a Facebook post by Madison Foods.

A NorthWestern spokeswoman said the dam's systems are monitored 24 hours a day but the only alert that the flow was diminished comes from a U.S. Geological Survey gauge that notifies the company when flows drop below minimum, which is 150 cfs.

The component failed between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. and NorthWestern officials weren't notified until later in the morning. They did not visually confirm the problem until mid-morning when a dam attendant was alerted, Clotfelter said. 

Volunteers

Forrest Kappmeyer, 4, holds a fishing net as his mother Mallory carries 2-year-old Laylon on Wednesday morning at a fishing access along the Madison River. "This is our favorite spot to fish so we decided to make the drive up from Idaho Falls and see if we can help," Mallory said. The Kappmeyers were part of dozens of volunteers from across the region who showed up after news that a dam malfunction had started to drain the Madison River. Crews from NorthWestern Energy are working to resolve the problem.

The entire gate structure was replaced 10 years ago during $40 million in upgrades to the dam, he said, adding that he had not seen a similar failure before. The gates were inspected by NorthWestern and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in August, revealing no problems.

"What's unique about this is the direct impact to the resource," Clotfelter said, adding that he was glad the failure did not endanger anyone and that the part's collapse is not a reflection on the structural integrity of other parts of the dam.

Looking ahead, he said the company would be looking to use the USGS gauge differently to ensure such a problem would come to their attention more quickly.

Mike Bias, executive director of Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials told him it could be days before the problem is resolved.

“The longer flows stay low, the stronger the impacts will be immediately and long term,” Bias said.

Fish rescue

In this file photo, volunteers search for fish in a pool along the Madison River after a gate malfunction at Hebgen Lake Dam cut off water to the river.

Chris Guy, assistant leader of the Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, said there is not much literature addressing a drawdown of a coldwater fishery like the Madison River. He cited one review that found “...little is known about the sublethal and long-term consequences of stranding on growth and population dynamics.” Long-term ramifications will be dependent on the amount of fish mortality that occurs, he added. FWP’s annual fish sampling next year will show the extent of the effects, Guy added.

“We will have to wait until next year to fully understand the influence of the dewatering on the population abundance,” Guy wrote in an email.

Because of the drawdown, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has issued a fishing closure along the entire upper river between the dam and Ennis Lake — a section referred to by some fly anglers as the 50 Mile Riffle.

“This closure will remain in place until the issue at the dam is resolved and flows are fully restored to the river,” the FWP statement said, adding that the impacts to the fishery are still unclear.

“Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks staff and volunteers were on the river Wednesday moving stranded fish back into the river channel, and NorthWestern Energy staff have advised that it is safe to do so,” FWP said. “Because flows are unable to be restored immediately, it’s likely that cold temperatures will have a greater impact on spawning redds than foot traffic.”

FWP fisheries biologist Mike Duncan addressed the group gathered in Ennis to help with the fish rescue efforts, saying, “We don’t want to exacerbate the problem … by trampling hundreds of viable eggs. Be careful where you are walking.”

He directed the volunteers to focus their efforts on places where fish were stranded in isolated pools at the upper reaches of the river, since tributaries are helping boost flows a little higher – to 381 cfs – in the Cameron area.

Fish help

Casey Johnston, a volunteer from Divide, slowly releases a bucket full of trout as he and dozens of others work to save trapped fish in sections of the Madison River that have been cut off from the main river flow. The river began to dry up after a malfunction occurred at a gate on Hebgen Lake Dam.

Brown trout were already in trouble across a large swath of southwestern Montana, according to FWP research revealed in a May Montana Standard story. On the Madison River, brown trout recruitment was poor and fish numbers were below the 20-year average. What’s frustrating is that biologists haven’t been able to identify the cause of the widespread decline.

Guy Alsentzer, of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, called on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to provide leadership on the problem by enlisting FWP and the Department of Environmental Quality to hold NorthWestern Energy accountable for damage to the river while also demanding transparency about what went wrong. He suggested the creation of a separate environmental fund may be necessary to help repair the damage and to keep the regional economy from taking a direct hit.

“The public needs to know,” Alsentzer said. “This is the economic driver for this part of the world.”

The governor's spokesperson said Gianforte is closely monitoring the situation while staying in contact with NorthWestern Energy and local communities. 

"The state stands ready to provide any additional support to our partners on the ground to get water flowing again as soon as possible and minimize harm to this treasured resource," said Brooke Stroyke, Gianforte's communications director. "Once the most pressing situation is resolved, a full investigation will take place and appropriate action taken."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is responsible for dam oversight. A spokesperson at the agency said NorthWestern would be required to file a full report with FERC that the agency will review. The dam was last inspected on Aug. 25 revealing "no significant findings."

Statewide, the fishing outfitting industry generates more than $76.74 million, according to a 2017 University of Montana Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research study. The Madison River ranks third overall in the state for angler visits, behind the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, respectively.

In a 2020 study of the river by FWP, the agency called the Madison “an iconic fishing destination for trout anglers worldwide,” attracting 207,000 anglers in 2017 with 75% of those nonresidents. A 2020 study by NorthWestern put the amount of individual visitors on the upper river climbing from 203,000 in 2014 to 245,000 by 2018.

The studies were conducted as FWP has struggled to develop regulations to control what some anglers see as river crowding. A special subcommittee has been established to work on the issue, which includes sporting, conservation and outfitting members.

In August 2016 a closure of the Yellowstone River from the Yellowstone National Park boundary 183 miles downstream was instituted by the state for six weeks following an outbreak of proliferative kidney disease that killed thousands of fish. The closure was meant to reduce stress on the remaining fish populations.

An analysis by ITRR found the Yellowstone River alone generated about $70 million in revenue from anglers, based on 2013 figures, and accounted for between 620 and 780 jobs. The closure in 2016 may have caused Park County alone to take a half-million dollar hit to its economy, ITRR speculated.

In 2017 NorthWestern Energy completed a $40 million repair of Hebgen Lake Dam that took nine years. The project included work on the dam’s intake, located at the bottom of the structure, and spillway.

The dam, built in 1915, is for water storage only, no turbines are installed to generate electricity.

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