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Restoration of Blacktail and Basin Creeks

Silver Bow Creek has become for some, the archetype of Superfund.  The example of the death of this stream and the community’s desire to see it reborn is the quintessential hero story. Silver Bow Creek, however, is only one of many streams within the Summit Valley that help to form the headwaters of the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers.  Two other streams are noteworthy, both in their contributions to the waters of the Clark Fork and their stories of survival within the Superfund landscape.  Blacktail Creek and Basin Creek are survivors of Superfund to be sure, but their stories can also be stories of vibrant, thriving streams restored to health following this era.

Blacktail Creek has been impacted by historic mining practices and the mere fact that it runs directly through an urban setting. Historically, also known as Blacktail Deer Creek and Bell Creek, it is an example of a municipal stream that is fairly intact, supporting fish and riparian wildlife along its course through the Summit Valley. The damages to this creek include deposits of slag and mine tailings from historic smelter activity from the Bell Smelter; channelization through the city; impacts and sedimentation from roads; tailings within the floodplain; and fish entrapment due to aging culverts.  Given its impacts and the fact that the stream continues to support cutthroat trout, restoration dollars spent on this stream are likely to yield high returns, in other words, a good bang for the buck.

The Natural Resource Damage Program has allocated $957,000 for restoration projects along Blacktail Creek.  The nature of these projects depends on the specific reach and the type of impacts.  Some projects are fairly simple and will not require large amounts of cash, however, the projects may be stalled due to the need to comply with federal regulations for flooding and mapping of the floodplain.

Restoration Plans on Blacktail Creek by Reach 

In the Highland Mountains, Blacktail Creek is impacted by sanding and sediment from the road along Highway 2.  Fish passage is difficult in this reach as culverts have aged, with erosion below the culverts creating waterfalls of sorts from the outlets. Fish are unable to pass these areas as the distance is too high for the fish to jump upstream and through the culvert.  Sedimentation from road sanding is a normal occurrence in streams located near roadways that are sanded during the winter months.  In order to alleviate these sedimentation issues, installing slash windrows along the roadway would be an easy solution to catch sediment leaving the roads.  Also in this area, the need for natural water storage is paramount.  Beaver mimicry devices have been installed to help alleviate this issue.  See Blacktail Watershed Restoration and Monitoring Project on page 11 of this edition for more details about this project.

Further downstream toward Continental Drive, fish passage again becomes an issue due to aging culverts.  Culvert replacement within the creek traveling through both private and public properties is planned.  Jon Gulch, a former tributary of Blacktail Creek, no longer connects to Blacktail, which leads to some wetland loss and fish entrainment.  Within this area, the most likely restoration plans are replacing culverts, addressing sedimentation, and studying connectivity.

Nutrient loading issues present themselves in the reach that moves through the Blacktail Loop area.  Nutrient loading is defined as the quantity of nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, that are added to bodies of water.  With excessive nutrient loading, algae and aquatic plants grow to the point of causing harm to the water body.  Resident education and public outreach regarding how best to upgrade aging septic systems and otherwise mitigate nutrient loading from other sources, such as fertilizers, is part of the restoration plan for this reach. As Blacktail Creek makes its way through the Country Club Golf Course toward Father Sheehan Park, the creek is cut off from its natural floodplain.  When Lake Avoca (located at the present-day Butte Country Club Golf Course) was drained and the dam on Blacktail Creek breached in 1939, the original Blacktail Creek channel was gone.  The solution at the time was to simply heap the lake bed materials onto the banks of the former channel.  This heaping created a severely incised channel through the golf course. Addressing the incising and reconnecting the stream to its floodplain is no small task. Estimates for the restoration in this area alone is $1.5 million.  In order to complete this project, it will be necessary to create partnerships with other funders.

Once Blacktail Creek leaves Father Sheehan Park, the effects of historic smelting, and the more recent effects of channelization and filling of wetland areas ( done in order to accommodate the 1962 construction of Interstate 90) are obvious.  In this 1.5 mile reach from Harrison Avenue to Montana Street, the stream is very slow moving and drops approximately 12 feet in elevation, leading to a very shallow, slow stream that is a rather poor habitat for trout.

Other difficulties in this area include the fact that Butte’s sanitary sewer system runs adjacent to the stream below the walking trail, creating a difficult endeavor for restoration. Another concern in this area is the addition of waters carrying zinc from Grove Gulch near Kaw Avenue.  Zinc affects fish mortality rates and can be toxic to native cutthroat trout.  The zinc influx near this area may need to be further addressed in order to ensure fish survivability.   

In the section from Lexington Avenue to the confluence with Silver Bow Creek at the Chamber of Commerce, the entire reach was straightened to improve flow and velocity in order to help flush the sanitary waste that was once deposited in the stream.  Mine wastes were also present in this area.  The wetlands adjacent to this portion of the creek likely have contaminated bed sediments that may need to be removed should connectivity between the creek and the wetlands be restored.

This reach of Blacktail Creek is considered part of Butte Area One.  Some of the money allocated by the Butte Natural Resource Council for alluvial groundwater connection to surface flow may be available for this area.  To start to improve this reach, the Blacktail Creek berm, near the Butte Chamber of Commerce, will need to be removed. Other improvements of this reach include reducing sedimentation, improving fish passage, and addressing the potential issues from the mine tailings impoundment in the floodplain.

Restoration Plans on Basin Creek by Reach 

Another notable creek within Summit Valley is Basin Creek.  This creek also has its origins in the Highland Mountains.  Today, Basin Creek basically stops at the Basin Creek Reservoir.  However, a remnant of Basin Creek that acts more like a perennial or seasonal stream remains flowing through the city of Butte during high flow times. Restoration activities are planned exclusively for the upstream reaches of Basin Creek.  Maintaining improved water quality upstream of the reservoir not only ensures drinking water quality for Butte residents but also ensures that the prime fish habitat upstream of the reservoir is maintained.  There are ample opportunities for improving recreation and public use upstream of the reservoir.  Improvements such as increasing natural storage of water in the high mountain parks; decreasing sediment and erosion; and ensuring easier fish passage, will create major rewards within this section.  The rewards are a higher quality of water within the reservoir, which is then less costly to treat, and increased recreational opportunities for the public.

Flooding and Floodplain Mapping

The hurdle facing most of the restoration projects for these streams is the completion of a detailed floodplain map for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  The detailed mapping requires surveying the current conditions of the floodplain and modeling the conditions that may be affected by the planned restoration project.  The mapping and hydrologic modeling can be expensive, with some estimates nearly doubling the costs of any proposed projects.  Given the likely rewards for the restoration of these streams, attention to overcoming these hurdles is critical.

Restoration dollars spent on Blacktail and Basin Creeks will improve the water quality of Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River.  The dollars spent on both of these relatively intact streams will reap great rewards for improved habitat, increased recreational activity, and economic vitality for Summit Valley.  The story of restoration within these two tributaries is certain to be one of success.

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