Cold and clear? Grant Creek restoration hinges on funding, right of way

Biologists from Montana FWP and watershed specialists look for bull trout in Rattlesnake Creek. Significant efforts have been made in recent years to restore the creek to native conditions. A similar plan is brewing for Grant Creek, though it’s not currently funded. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Dreams of a cold and clear flowing Grant Creek fully connected to the Clark Fork River aren’t as distant as they once seemed, though completing the work will require funding and significant restoration.

Of the 10 projects included in a federal grant received by Missoula County last year, nine represent road and trail work west of Reserve Street. The last project – the restoration of Grant Creek – also made the list, but given the cost and urgency of the area’s transportation needs, it will have to wait until other funding sources are identified.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority, city and county officials have stressed.

“In this planning process, given the $13 million we have, simply because Grant Creek ranks No. 10 doesn’t mean that’s a low priority for us,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “In no way, shape or form does this reflect any lack of prioritizing stream restoration.”

The priority list associated with the county’s BUILD grant for infrastructure work west of Reserve has been the talk of city and county government for the past year. Most of that talk has focused on the road and trail work associated with the project.

With $13 million available, city and county officials have identified several road and trail projects that could move forward sooner than later. But with funding limited, the restoration of Grant Creek will have to wait.

How long could hinge on the outcome of a second grant application submitted by Missoula County this month. If approved, it could move the restoration project closer to the starting line.

As proposed, the project would realign roughly 2,800 feet of channel from West Broadway south. It also would restore the stream’s natural habitat and allow for stormwater recharge. The ecological benefits of restoration would have far-reaching impacts.

“Grant Creek is the next important cold water tributary in the middle Clark Fork down from Rattlesnake Creek,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “There are both wild and native trout that live and spawn in Grant Creek, including our state fish, the Westslope cutthroat trout.”

A Google map of Grant Creek in the proposed project area. The creek runs as an irrigation ditch in portions of its southern stretch. Plans would restore the creek by realigning the channel to more natural conditions and planting native vegetation. It would also include a nature trail.

Brooks cited evidence that bull trout, listed as an endangered species, have also been found in the creek. If the creek were restored with full connectivity, chances are good the endangered fish would find its way back to its native waters.

Given the project’s importance, Trout Unlimited wrote a letter of support backing the county’s first grant application. It also wrote a letter backing the second application, which will be decided later this year by federal officials in Washington, D.C.

“When Missoula or any municipality is doing development work, we want to weigh in and make sure that includes not just protection, but enhancement of natural resources like our streams,” said Brooks. “We can have both, and this project in particular includes restoring stream habitat and the floodplain, as well as some groundwater recharge.”

Projects identified in the federal BUILD grant must be delivered by a certain date, and some of the work is considered more shovel ready than others. It’s another factor city and county officials had to weigh when prioritizing the various projects.

Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works for the city, said the restoration of Grant Creek will require significant environmental review and additional right of way, both of which will take time to accomplish.

“We don’t yet have the right of way in place for it – we’re working with the land owner,” Keene said. “It also involves doing some floodplain work and the permitting process is more complicated and has a longer timeline.”

A committee was appointed to score the 10 projects identified in the county grant based on a number of factors, including traffic, safety and economic development. With early design work done, several of the top road and trail projects have emerged as candidates for initial work.

Plans for the creek remain in design.

“This was something we talked about quite a bit with our committee,” Keene said. “It’s hard to rank a creek restoration project against transportation projects. But we think Grant Creek is really important to the whole BUILD project, and we’re working on the design for that.”

Completing the design for Grant Creek restoration will enable officials to secure the permits needed to do the work. Getting it to the point where it’s “shovel ready” will also enable officials to look for other funding sources to aid the project.

That could include the use of impact fees collected as development plays out in the grant’s larger planning area.

“By prioritizing the pieces where we think development is going to happen the soonest, we’ll be able to generate the impact fees and other things that will help support the remainder of the project, and Grant Creek would get funded with some of that money,” said Keene.

Morgan Valliant, the conservation lands manager with the city of Missoula, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney discuss plans to remove a dam in Rattlesnake Creek and restore the tributary to historic conditions during a field tour on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Other funding partners may also be approached, including the Clark Fork Coalition and Montana Trout Unlimited. The later has been fundamental in plans to restore Rattlesnake Creek, including the costly endeavor of removing the old concrete dam and restoring the channel to natural conditions.

Much of that work in Rattlesnake Creek is slated to occur this year.

“If we offered to pay for this (Grant Creek restoration) project with BUILD grant money, nobody else would put money in the kitty for what is really a larger benefit,” said City Council member Julie Merritt. “I hope we can really get some other partners to help us fund that piece of this so it gets done well and doesn’t take a lot away from the infrastructure that’s also sorely needed in this area.”

City and county officials have said it’s difficult to score ecological infrastructure against transportation infrastructure when funding is limited. But they agree that restoring Grant Creek to natural conditions is a priority.

Some have expressed disappointment that the restoration project scored last on the county’s list of projects associated with the grant.

“I’m a little concerned about having Grant Creek restoration as the last priority,” City Council member Heidi West said this week. “It turns into an irrigation ditch and really doesn’t connect to the river any more. I think that basic ecosystem function is really important.”

Trout Unlimited agrees.

“There will be improvements in the stormwater system, with stormwater recharge going underground rather than flowing directly into the creek and bringing any kind of surface pollutant with it,” said Brooks. “There will be a better stormwater system that includes some bio-filtration and moving water back into the groundwater, where it can seep into the creek as it’s supposed to do over time.”