About $140,000 stands between the city of Missoula and an opportunity to own an almost obsolete irrigation ditch and a fair amount of water that could help cool the Clark Fork River in the future.

Since April 15, a coalition of the city of Missoula, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition has been working hard to come up with almost $1 million to purchase the Flynn-Lowney irrigation ditch that runs along West Broadway Avenue past Reserve Street to Mullen Road.

They have a six-month period to raise the money, after which the sale is taken off the table, partially because the Mullen BUILD project is one of the other pieces of the puzzle.

“If we’re not able to close that funding gap, the money that was allotted from the BUILD Grant has to go back to infrastructure for the roadway. So this is kind of our last push to close that funding gap,” said Andy Schultz, City utilities engineer.

The BUILD Grant project involves the construction of several roads and trails in anticipation of housing development north of Mullen and west of Reserve Street. Fortunately for the coalition, the BUILD project was pushed back to next spring.

This spring, when Missoula Public Works Director Jeremy Keene was planning for construction, he recognized that trying to avoid the Flynn-Lowney Ditch – building bridges and pipes - added a lot of cost to the project. So he took a chance and called the irrigators.

“They approached the Hellgate Valley Ditch Company and said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be cheaper or about the same amount of money to buy you out as it would be to put in all this stuff.’ And lo and behold, the irrigation company said we’re actually – to put words in their mouth – looking for a way out,” said Trout Unlimited project manager Rob Robertson.

Will McDowell, right, talks with Andy Schultz and Rob Robertson on Tuesday about the restoration that could happen around Broadway Island if the city gets to buy the Flynn-Lowney Ditch. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Will McDowell, right, talks with Andy Schultz and Rob Robertson on Tuesday about the restoration that could happen around Broadway Island if the city gets to buy the Flynn-Lowney Ditch. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

As developers have bought up more of the good agricultural land past Reserve Street for subdivisions, the ditch company had fewer irrigators to pay for upkeep of the ditch. As the area has become more urban, that upkeep has become expensive.

The diversion structure in the Clark Fork River across from the Ogren ball field has to be maintained, as do all the tunnels and headgates while more trash has ended up in the ditch. In addition, FWP was planning to spend about $500,000 on a fish screen because so many fish end up in the ditch. Robertson said a survey of the Frenchtown Ditch found about 10 fish entered the ditch per hour, which is a problem, especially when the headgates are closed for the season.

Clark Fork Coalition Restoration Director Will McDowell said only about seven landowners still use the water to irrigate about 940 acres.

But those 940 acres are still important, and the city wants to keep the landowners whole. So the coalition worked out an agreement: The city would buy the ditch and the surface water rights that go with it, which grant up to 40 cubic feet per second of water. In exchange, the city would drill seven individual water wells and the landowners’ surface water rights would be changed to groundwater rights totaling 4 cfs.

After subtracting some mitigation water, that would leave the city with water rights to about 30 cfs. McDowell said the Clark Fork Coalition is willing to buy the rights so it could leave more water in the river and the city could get some return on its investment.

When the Clark Fork River has a decent amount of flow - Tuesday, it had 1,600 cfs - that water might not be noticeable. But after several years of drought – which might happen as climate change effects worsen - the river could have only half of that. At that level, 30 cfs could add 4% or 5% to the flows.

“Really, every little bit helps,” McDowell said. “Because as you get to Kelly Island, the more water you have, the more habitat that’s going to be underwater. And that’s good rearing habitat for fish. So this is a strategic location from the point of view of that benefit.”

The groups have lots of ideas for restoration efforts that could happen once the money is collected and the deal is closed. But first, the deal must close by Oct. 15.

The city has $725,000 from the BUILD Grant, Transportation Impact Fees and Water Utility Development Funds and has secured another $125,000 from FWP’s Future Fisheries Grant Program. Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition are contributing in-kind work and are trying to raise more money.

The Clark Fork Coalition needs Mayor John Engen to sign a letter-of-intent this week so they can send it along with a request for funds from the Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program, which provides grants for projects that restore water to rivers.

In the meantime, the coalition is hoping developers and landowners who stand to benefit will contribute to the $140,000 gap, along with anyone else who would like to see improvements to the river around Broadway Island. Developers can talk to the city and other interested parties can donate through the Clark Fork Coalition or Trout Unlimited, which has already raised $45,000. Any excess funds raised will go toward subsequent restoration efforts.

“Sometimes, landowners aren’t supportive of projects like this. These factors don’t often aligned on one project. So when we heard about this, it was a no-brainer to get behind it,” Robertson said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.