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State grant: Missoula County, Trout Unlimited set for next phase of Ninemile restoration

A decade of cleanup work in the Ninemile watershed has improved the creek and its tributaries from past mining damage. The watershed is vital to bull trout and Westslope cutthroat. (Missoula County photo)

A $40,000 grant provided by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will enable Missoula County and its partner, Trout Unlimited, to complete the final design for the next phase of cleanup in the Ninemile watershed.

The work has been going on since 2006 and has been carried out in stages. But much work remains before efforts to restore the area from damages caused by mining early last century are finished.

“It’s part of the multi-year partnership to clean up mine projects in the Ninemile – to clean up from past impacts,” said Kali Becher, the county’s open lands project manager. “The goal of this grant is to create construction-ready documents and documents used for permitting.”

Slag piles and dredge ponds remain in portions of the Ninemile district – a relic of the mining that dredged gold from the bottom of what once was Glacial Lake Missoula.

Destruction of the watershed led to erosion and increased stream temperatures, and it prevented bull trout and Westslope cutthroat from navigating to historic spawning grounds.

But in 2004, Trout Unlimited, Missoula County and the Lolo National Forest launched a campaign to reclaim the Ninemile’s abandoned mining sites and restore the landscape to a more natural condition.

The work picked up in earnest 2014 and has been playing out every summer since. For every mile of restoration, around one acre-foot of additional groundwater enters Ninemile Creek at base flow. The work also has reduced sediment load by more than 860 tons a year, according to Trout Unlimited.

“The impacts were done over a decade or more. It was in successive projects in the 1920s,” Becher said. “Reclamation and cleanup have been going on since 2006, which is quite a while.”

The planning grant from DNRC will enable the county and its partners to apply for funding to implement the actual work. Once that starts, it will represent Phase 7 in the cleanup effort.

“This step is required in order to get the money to do the implementation,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It’s just the next step, not the final step.”