Surf’s up: Is Missoula ready for a second whitewater feature on the Clark Fork?

Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula is used year-round by hearty surfers, and heavily in the summer by all river goers. A second wave is planned down river, though it faces a number of regulatory hurdles. (Missoula Current file photo)

A water recreation park proposed for the Clark Fork River made its public debut on Wednesday with a number of local, state and federal agencies working to flesh out the tightly regulated project that would create Missoula’s second whitewater feature if approved.

The project, dubbed Max Wave, is proposed for a stretch of river near Ogren Park and Broadway Island, where proponents would create a water park with a boating wave, handicap ramps and aquatic channels.

Molly Davidson, a water engineer with Morrison-Maierle, said the project would also enhance flows to the Flynn-Lowney diversion canal and improve a degraded stretch of river with other ecological features.

“Undoubtedly, we’re removing a lot of junk, adding a lot of vegetation and putting in a fish screen that’s preventing entrapment in that canal, and we see those all as pluses,” Davidson said. “It’s highly urbanized and doesn’t really have a natural river system condition. When this project came about, we realized it served more than one function.”

The feature’s original design was completed in 2012, though it has since undergone several changes. Backers, who have funded the engineering and design by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, came up with an improved plan to better address community feedback.

They began the permitting process early this year.

Missoula Mayor John Engen stands among the project’s supporters, saying the feature would achieve a number of community goals by creating a river attraction that’s accessible to a wide range of users, regardless of skills and interest.

However, he admitted, the proposal isn’t universally loved, and the permitting process conducted by a number of state and federal agencies will likely make or break the project.

“If they ascertain that a project like this has environmental, biological, social or economic consequences with which we cannot live, then it’s a non-starter,” Engen said. “If that’s not the case and this project is permitted, we have an opportunity and obligation for the city of Missoula to serve as a partner for the many folks who have labored long and hard to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars already invested in the project.”

A long line of state and federal agencies have already begun reviewing the project, including the Montana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will consider impacts to the both the Clean Water Act and the Endanger Species Act.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also has a role in the process by reviewing the project’s impacts on fish and wildlife. Fisheries manager Pat Saffel said his agency has worked closely with Max Wave and city leadership.

“The major things for us are that fish can get past this structure,” Saffel said. “We’ve seen a lot of information from Colorado that show impacts to fish and passage concerns. The project has come a long ways to address some of those, but I think we have a little ways further to go. In large part, we’ve made good progress over the years.”

With its treaty rights to the Clark Fork River, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will also weigh in on the project.

Staff attorney John Harris said that while the tribes are not a permitting agency, they are federally recognized, meaning the Army Corps of Engineers must consult them on a project involving elements of their treaty rights.

“The main goal of the tribes is that the tribal members get to continue using the river for their life ways,” Harris said. “The tribes have always looked to keep the river healthy and restore it where it’s not as healthy. We’ll be taking a look at this project.”

Some called the proposal an improvement to a degraded stretch of the Clark Fork River, one that would enhance the city’s recreational amenities. Brennan’s Wave, the city’s first and only whitewater feature, was constructed in 2006.

While opponents point to that project as an engineering and environmental failure, Steve Gaskill, a Max Wave board member, said backers of Max Wave have raised $400,000 to properly engineer the new feature to avoid the problems of the past.

Despite the maintenance challenges of Brennan’s Wave, he added, it still serves as an economic boon to the city.

“I was involved with the Brennnan’s Wave economic impact study, which showed a benefit of about $2.8 million to the Missoula community per year,” said Gaskill. “That was back in 2015, and it doesn’t include what we see in the ads, tourism promotion and all the pictures. I think the Clark Fork River is the crown jewel of Missoula.”

While the project has its list of supporters, it also has skeptics, including the Clark Fork Coalition, which suggested that efforts to build Max Wave marked the latest step in turning Missoula’s urban stretch of river into an “engineered whitewater play park.”

“We’re taking this piecemeal approach to the development of the urban river corridor in Missoula as kind of an engineered whitewater play park,” said John Diarmid, the coalition’s science coordinator. “That’s not necessary a bad thing, and we’re not necessarily opposed, but we question whether that should happen as part of a broader community dialogue.”