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Missoula County closes out another phase of Ninemile Creek restoration

The Ninemile Creek watershed west of Missoula. The area was heavily mined in the early 20th century and then abandoned, though years of cleanup work is helping restore the watershed to its natural function. (Missoula County photo)

Calling it a procedural step in an ongoing project, Missoula County closed out its $420,000 grant with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for another phase of cleanup work in the Ninemile watershed.

But a funding gap left the reclamation project roughly 200 feet short of its ultimate goal of reuniting the confluence of two streams. That work will be completed this season under a new $1.2 million grant announced in February.

Kylie Paul, the natural resource specialist for Missoula County, said the $420,000 DNRC grant was received in 2018. The funding helped reconstruct 3,600 feet of Ninemile Creek between Burnt Fork and Twin creeks.

It also regraded around 90,000 cubic yards of placer material. The total project reclaimed around 50 acres of abandoned mining activity, Paul said.

The project was listed as the Housem Placer Mine Reclamation.

“This is one of several DNRC reclamation funding grants we’ve been a part of,” said Paul. “It’s essentially the last step of expending out one of those grants for one of the project phases completed last year. This is a step to show the project was completed and that the tasks were done.”

Newly constructed Ninemile Creek with wood brush banks and willing cuttings. (Missoula County)

The work represents a reclamation partnership between Trout Unlimited, the Lolo National Forest and the county, which began in 2004. Since then, five mine sites on tributaries along Ninemile Creek have been reclaimed, each funded in part by DNRC grants.

The watershed was heavily impacted by placer mining in the early 20th century. The work left some stream channels confined, resulting in the complete loss of the historic floodplain.

The placer piles and dredge ponds cover more than six miles of floodplain along Ninemile Creek and inhibited natural functions. The damage led to faster flood runoff, decreased natural water storage and erosion.

But for every mile of restoration, around one-acre feet of additional groundwater now enters Ninemile Creek each day at base flow. The work also has reduced the sediment load by 860 tons a year.

The lack of matching grants with the 2018 grant prompted the Housem project to stop 200 feet short of the confluence with Twin Creek. But that project is included in the reclamation work planned for this year.

“We should be sending more final reports to DNRC as summer and fall progresses,” Paul said.