The Rattlesnake Dam, in place for more than 100 years, marked its last day in existence on Monday.
As an enormous hydraulic jackhammer ripped into the final remnants of the structure that’s blocked Rattlesnake Creek for the past century, Morgan Valliant took out his cellphone camera and let out a cheer.
Dozens of others gathered on the banks joined him.
“It’s not as exciting as an explosion, but it’s good to see it go,” said Valliant, the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department’s conservation lands manager. “By the end of the day we’ll basically have all man-made structures out of the floodplain.”
The dam was built in 1904, reinforced with concrete in 1924 and was an important part of the city’s water supply until 1993.
The City of Missoula acquired the deteriorating dam, along with 10 dams on lakes in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, through the 2017 acquisition of the former Mountain Water Company. The Rattlesnake Dam mitigation and restoration project, meant to restore the natural spawning migration route for fish, is an official collaboration between the City of Missoula, Trout Unlimited and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with dozens of other partners.
According to Lori Hart, a communications specialist with the city’s Public Works Department, the dam’s removal means there is now a natural river connection between the Rattlesnake Wilderness at the headwaters of the creek and the Clark Fork River for the first time in more than a century.
“A free-flowing Rattlesnake Creek will benefit native and threatened fish species, protect public safety, and eliminate maintenance and operation costs for Missoula Water,” she said in a press release.
The project includes 1,000 feet of stream channel restoration, five acres of wetland and floodplain creation and new trails and kiosks.
Valliant said there’ll eventually be a loop trail for visitors on the west side of the creek to visit the former dam site, where they can swim in deep pools and enjoy the scenery. Next year, there’ll be a “lot of baby plants and fencing” as project managers try to get native vegetation established.
“This is Year One of a three-year process,” he explained. “We also spent two years on financing so it’s really a five-year project.”
The total project cost is $1.37 million, 95% of which is funded by state, federal and private grants. The city has chipped in roughly $100,000, but the financing includes funding from more than 20 entities, including numerous local businesses, individuals and organizations.
Valliant said the project has paid for scores of local planning, demolition and restoration jobs.
If the dam’s removal is good news for humans, it’s great news for fish, according to Rob Roberts, the project manager for Trout Unlimited.
“Rattlesnake Creek is one of our prime westslope cutthroat and bull trout spawning tributaries for the Clark Fork in this section,” he explained. “And what we’re seeing is also a lot of the sportfishing opportunity that you see in the Clark Fork, lower Blackfoot, this region, a lot of the spawning activity happens in Rattlesnake whether it’s brown trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat and even mountain whitefish all spawn up here.”
There was a fish ladder to help migration, but it was no substitute for a free-flowing creek.
Just based on the length of the watershed, wilderness character, water temperature and high-quality habitat, Roberts said, Rattlesnake Creek is one of the best spawning streams from the Blackfoot all the way to the Flathead River.
Work is ahead of schedule and is expected to continue into the fall with final revegetation efforts by the end of October. Residents can visit the project overlook by taking a short walk or bike ride on the Rattlesnake Greenway. The dam site and overlook are about 0.8 miles from the trailhead at the north end of Duncan Drive. Visitors to the site should use caution as construction work begins. A webcam has been installed on the site to offer a glimpse of the daily action. You can see the latest photo https://montanatu.org/rattlesnake-dam-webcam/ as well as an overlook trail map and additional project information on Engage Missoula at https://www.engagemissoula.com/.
"Removing Rattlesnake Dam and restoring the stream is an excellent use of DNRC's grant funds,” said John Tubbs, the conservation director at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “Our mission is to partner with communities like the City of Missoula and invest in projects that benefit our economy and natural resources while preserving the Montana's natural heritage.”