Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With erosion along the urban reach of the Clark Fork River a growing concern, the Missoula City Council this week approved allocating $1 million from the open space bond to stabilize the banks and create dedicated access sites.

Some also pushed back on suggestions that urban campers and members of the homeless population were creating a public health risk by adding to the river's challenges around erosion and water quality.

The restoration and stabilization project has been in the works since at least 2014. It's intended to preserve water quality and wildlife habitat while also maintaining the river as popular summer attraction.

But slowing the rate of erosion remains the project's primary goal. The city documented 90 human-made trails within the project area and more than 630 feet of bank erosion. If not addressed, the problem could threaten public infrastructure.

“We've been tracking this problem since 2014,” said Morgan Valliant, the associate director of ecosystem services for the city. “It's not the river that's causing this. It's access to and from the water.”

The project looks to establish a number of dedicated access sites and restore unauthorized trails to a natural state. The plan includes two access points on the north bank, with stairs leading to the swimming beach under the Madison Street Bridge. It also provides ADA access to the water at Caras Park.

But the bulk of the work will take place on the south bank and include two dedicated access sites. One will offer steps to a low-water beach at Toole Park and another dedicated take-out site under Beartracks Bridge.

“It's the boaters and floaters primarily that are crawling in and out of the river,” council member Amber Sherrill said of the erosion. “I'm voting for this because I believe in water quality. I understand the level of erosion we have in the river. I'm voting for this because I believe in safety, and that our infrastructure is at risk if we don't do it.”

The project's anticipated budget stands at roughly $2.6 million, including $300,000 for final engineering, $785,000 for construction and river restoration, $1.5 million for Caras Park improvements, and $79,000 for construction administration.

Funding includes $100,000 from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and $1.2 million from the Economic Development Administration. It also includes $150,000 from the Missoula Downtown Partnership and up to $1 million from the Open Space Bond.

“This is the kind of project I like to see the city involved in, taking care of what we already have rather than reaching out someplace else for projects we don't really need,” said Missoula resident Robert Dunlop.

But other members of the public questioned why the city was funding efforts to protect and restore the river while urban camps still dot the river banks. Such camps have been an issue for years and volunteers are often left to pick up the garbage.

“I'm deeply concerned about the impact the homeless are having on the landscape, the wildlife, the river and the erosion,” said Missoula resident Susan Reneau. “I'm impressed how much has been done to take care of the river bank. But it'll all be for not if humans come in and pitch their tents and continue to have human feces and destroy the riverbanks. And there's the issue of hypodermic needles in the river.”

Council member Kristen Jordan pushed back on the claim.

“Our homelessness community is not responsible for the trails going to and from the river. That's largely from city users like me,” Jordan said. “It's not our houseless population that's causing the degradation of our river banks.”