Rattlesnake Dam recreation plan looks to history, wildlife and access


Members of the city council, including John DiBari, left, and Jordan Hess, right, tour the Rattlesnake Dam site in late 2017 when the city and Trout Unlimited first announced their vision for the property, which was formerly owned by Mountain Water Co. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With removal of Rattlesnake Dam planned next year and restoration of the site expected to follow, the city has turned its focus to a long-range recreation plan for the property, one made possible by its acquisition of Missoula’s water system.

Parks and Recreation last week released the draft of its new Rattlesnake Reservoir Recreation Management Plan, a 12-page document that looks at trail placement, parking, scenic overlooks and wildlife migration.

Now, the city and its partners are seeking input from the public as the plan moves to the next phase.

“We did some significant public comment over a year ago now that kicked off the whole process, and we’ve been going through all sorts of analysis of the site,” said parks and recreation director Donna Gaukler. “We’ve got some real ecosystem treasures up there, some unique wetlands and a lot of wildlife habitat.”

The 45-acre property currently houses a 120-year-old concrete dam that hinders the migration of native fish. Chain-link fencing and other structures, combined with site’s narrow topography, also hinder the passage of wildlife.

As the plan notes, the Rattlesnake Greenbelt serves as a major wildlife corridor between the Rattlesnake Wilderness and the Clark Fork River. Removing the dam and restoring the property to native conditions while creating public access are all part of the vision.

“The plan is really tying to find the important balance of linking the valley, the urban area, to the greater recreation area in the Rattlesnake,” Gaukler said. “It also provides interpretation of the lower Rattlesnake Dam intake site.”

Remnants of the old Rattlesnake Dam. (Missoula Current file photo)

The plan notes the dam’s history, saying it represents “20th century advancements in water utility technologies.” That includes an old head gate that fed the Williams ditch, dry-stacked river stone and the remnants of a 30-foot wooden pipe that once provided domestic water to the city.

The site was formerly owned by Mountain Water Co. but was acquired by the city in 2017.

Under the proposal, roughly 1,200 feet of trail will also be rerouted on the east side of the property. The plan looks to retain a 6-foot-wide path with packed gravel and a grade not to exceed 8 percent. At the same time, it will improve sight lines and flow and reduce the speed of cyclists.

Hardened stream access and interpretation near the dam are also planned west of the creek, noting the structure’s historic and cultural significance in the growth of Missoula.

“One of the neat things about this is that the project is largely led by Trout Unlimited and made possible by Missoula’s ownership of the water system,” Gaukler said. “It’s a unique opportunity for Missoulians to continue to meet some of their primary goals of habitat restoration and recreational access.”