Sage Sutcliffe

(Missoula Current) The city of Missoula and the nonprofit Trout Unlimited need several hundred thousand dollars to meet their fundraising goals in order to begin removing the McKinley Lake dam in the summer of 2024.

Rob Roberts, project manager with Trout Unlimited, is confident the nonprofit will secure the funding.

Projected to cost around $500,000, the removal of the dam in the Rattlesnake Wilderness is an economic relief for the city as well as an ecological safeguard, said Roberts.

Organizers have raised roughly $250,000 from a grant and private foundation dollars, Roberts said. Trout Unlimited, which oversees the project budget, has just begun ramping up its fundraising efforts.

"We're still a year and half out, so I think that's a pretty good time frame,” Roberts said. “I think we can raise some money around it."

The city and nonprofit were awarded a $125,000 Montana Renewable Resource Project Grant through the Montana DNRC in the spring of 2021, which is when fundraising began.

Roberts anticipates the finalized budget will be supported by state, federal and private foundation contributions.

The last 10-25% will likely be donations from local businesses, conservation groups and volunteers who value the projected outcomes of the dam removal, which include dam failure mitigation and restoring a natural wilderness area.

The city removed a dam on lower Rattlesnake Creek and restored the channel to natural conditions.
The city removed a dam on lower Rattlesnake Creek and restored the channel to natural conditions.

The Missoula Parks and Recreation and Missoula Water departments will have a burden lifted from their list of responsibilities once the dam is removed, Roberts said.

The dam was created in the 1920s, when McKinley Lake and its neighboring lakes in what became the Rattlesnake Wilderness were utilized as Missoula’s primary water source. But the dam, which is owned by Missoula, has not been useful to the city in years.

Increasing erosion on the slope of the dam poses the threat of dam failure, which would harm downstream waterways. And because of its remote location, even simple maintenance and inspection is a costly endeavor.

"Any time we can decommission a dam, that basically alleviates that burden on the city forever," Roberts said.

While fundraising, Trout Unlimited is compiling several deconstruction plans that will be released for public review. The plans weigh the cost and long-term impacts to the wilderness site.

Roberts expects the environmental assessment will be released in spring of 2023. Public comments will be considered, and the project will move onto its next stage accordingly.

The goal is to begin the dam removal in the summer of 2024.

But even if Trout Unlimited secures the necessary funding before then, Roberts said there is still a lot of planning that needs to happen, including acquiring permits for working in a wilderness area, coordinating with Fish and Wildlife Services and public outreach.

McKinley Lake feeds into several tributaries before joining the Rattlesnake Creek, which empties into the Clark Fork River. Removing the dam and allowing rain and snowmelt to drain freely from the natural alpine lake will likely keep river waters cooler and water levels higher, a benefit to fish and anglers downstream.

Missoula’s rivers host a large variety of fish species, especially trout, that attract visiting anglers. The prime fishing season has historically run from mid-March through most of October.

But fishing conditions have become especially difficult in the hottest summer months. “Hoot owl” restrictions occur more frequently, restricting fishing after two o’clock when water temperatures rise above 70 degrees over three consecutive days.

In response to higher temperatures on rivers, the Missoulian Angler Fly Shop has moved its guided trips to lakes during the warmer months and reduced the number of boats it takes out. That’s bad for business, said Brett Downs, a 20-year-old employee of the shop.

Downs and some of his coworkers are hopeful the dam removal will improve fishing conditions downstream.

The McKinley Lake dam is only one of 10 dams across seven lakes in the Rattlesnake Wilderness that the city owns and maintains, and Roberts foresees all the dams being either removed or repaired within the next few decades.

Instead of separate construction and fundraising for each dam, Trout Unlimited would attempt to work on two or more dams at a time, shortening timeframes and simplifying fundraising, Roberts said.

The other removals will be easier once the McKinley Lake dam is removed, Roberts said, since the legal issues surrounding accessibility to the Rattlesnake Wilderness sites will have been already tackled.

The outcome of the McKinley Lake dam removal may determine what happens with the remaining sites, Roberts said, so Trout Unlimited is proceeding with diligence.

"This is one I'd prefer to do right the first time and not rush it,” Roberts said.