Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A $1.2 million grant awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration will enable the City of Missoula to construct sustainable access to the Clark Fork River at one of its busiest points in Caras Park.

Downtown access has been envisioned for years, along with other sustainable access points, all intended to curb erosion of the riverbank at points within the city.

“I've been working for the last 8 years on a project to restore about 80 unsustainable, eroded river-access points through Missoula, and establish sustainable access points,” said Morgan Valliant, the city's ecosystem services manager. “This project got a shot in the arm with the passage of the 2018 Open Space bond.”

The city is required to match the federal grant with around $305,000 in local funding, and revenue from the bond is there if needed. However, Valliant said the Missoula Downtown Association already has pledged $150,000 to the project and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency could contribute funding as well.

Valliant said the local match will go toward final design and permitting, as well as some construction costs. The structure will include steps to the water, seating, landscaping and ramps.

“Because it's an engineered structure, we'll be building ADA accessible ramps to get people down to the river,” Valliant said. “At this site, we'd be able to have folks launch, surf the wave, come back into the eddy and get out.”

A rendering of another possible river access point.
A rendering of another possible river access point.

After the Milltown Dam was removed and river use began to change, the city developed a river access plan and applied for a $50,000 grant to complete some design work and conduct a user survey.

The survey found that most floaters used single-occupancy watercraft, such as paddle boards and float tubes. A user count identified more than 15,000 floaters passing the Madison Avenue bridge during the summer water season.

With the increase in river use, the number of user-carved trails also has increased from 14 counted in 2009 to nearly 40 counted in 2017. Even then, it left more than 400 linear feat of riverbank to erode at an increasing pace.

Efforts to address the issue with grant funding haven’t been successful, but this time around, the effort paid off.

“The Clark Fork River has been heavily abused for the last 100 years,” Valliant said. “Our community has been focused on making it much better. Since the removal of Milltown, I've personally been involved in getting ahead of trends we're seeing in Missoula of rivers getting used to death.”

Accepting the federal grant and providing the matching funds received unanimous support from members of the City Council.

“This project is awesome,” said Mike Nugent, who was born and raised in Missoula. “I have memories of myself as a little kid playing near the river. There was nothing ever like this.”