32-year legacy: Nielsen announces retirement from Missoula Valley Water Quality District

The Clark Fork River and Interstate-90 cut through Hellgate Canyon into the Missoula Valley, which sits enveloped by fog. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Peter Nielsen, who devoted the past 32-plus years to environmental quality and water resources in the Missoula Valley and larger Upper Clark Fork River Basin, announced his retirement Tuesday in an email letter to friends and coworkers.

Nielsen, supervisor of the Missoula Valley Water Quality District in the City-County Health Department, said he’ll leave the post at the end of March.

“I am a very lucky guy who has been given a unique chance to work on things that matter, and to help make a positive difference for the environment and people in this community,” he said. “For this, I will be eternally grateful.

“As Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ I am fortunate to have been awarded this precious prize.”

Nielsen’s list of accomplishments runs many pages, and includes his leadership role in establishing and directing the Clark Fork Coalition and its early efforts to clean up wastewater discharge from the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. linerboard plant in Frenchtown, followed by decades of work – starting at the coalition and then at the Health Department – on the Superfund cleanup and restoration of Milltown Reservoir and the larger removal of mine and smelter tailings from the 100 miles of riverbank upstream.

He was a key figure in public debate and decision to remove Milltown Dam from the Clark Fork River seven miles upstream from Missoula, drawing to the federal government’s attention problems with the structure’s safety in addition to the environmental problems it was causing on the river both above and below.

At the Health Department, he helped establish the Missoula Valley Water Quality District and worked to educate the public on the importance of protecting Missoula’s sole-source aquifer, which is so clean and plentiful the city has no water treatment plant.

In Tuesday morning’s email, Nielsen told his colleagues that all should “be proud of the  things we have accomplished, like establishing the Clark Fork Coalition as a conservation leader, cleaning up the Milltown Superfund site, removing the Bonner and Milltown Dams, establishing the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, promoting the vision of a restored river and clean aquifer and gaining public control of Missoula’s water resources.

“I have faith that these important initiatives will continue for many years to come.”

Nielsen said he’s going to take a “brief sabbatical” to think about his next steps.

“I am exploring a few volunteer activities and hope to spend more time on some hobbies and interests,” he wrote. “I hope to travel a bit, including another trip overseas.”