Development across the Missoula Valley over the past 140 years hasn’t been kind to some of its natural features, particularly its creeks and streams.
Impacts from grazing and urbanization have left both Grant and Pattee creeks little more that ditches. Some dive under driveways and streets. Others barely find their way to the rivers they once fed.
But that could change, even if it takes time and funding.
With backing from the city, a member of the Big Sky Watershed Corps will spend the summer and early fall working to improve one impaired stretch of Pattee Creek.
The work, funded by various grants including $5,000 from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, looks to reduce the urban impacts on the Bitterroot River by improving various side streams, starting with Pattee Creek.
Watershed Corps member Mackenzie Tenan said the Bitterroot River Watershed Restoration Plan mentions three top pollutants that have degraded the river including sedimentation, temperature and alterations to side channels.
A little work can improve all three at once.
“Through revegetation, we want to improve bank stabilization. We have numbers showing high nutrients,” said Tenan. “We’d like to take in some of that sedimentation that comes from the road and have more (filtration) throughout the creek.”
The two grants funding the project, including the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, are aimed at reducing non-point source pollution and improving impaired waters.
Pattee Creek dives from the rolling, forested hills west of Missoula and crosses under 39th Street, where it enters the urban core. The creek flows in a straight line through front yards, under foot bridges and driveways.
After crossing Bancroft Street, it’s hemmed it by a wall of concrete before it recharges Bancroft Pond. Other than the pond, the creek no longer serves as the riparian zone it’s supposed to be. It’s identified as a “stream of concern” within the Bitterroot watershed.
Tenan’s work this summer will focus largely on the creek where it parallels Pattee Creek Drive. Other phases of the work could follow in the years ahead.
“All the stretches are different from each other and we don’t want different parcels having a lot of vegetation, a lot of good growth and healthy stretches, versus parcels that have no vegetation whatsoever,” she said. “We’re trying to eventually make that a continuous meandering creek that it’s supposed to be and not the ditch that people think it is.”
So far, Tenan has been reaching out to homeowners along Pattee Creek Drive and most have been eager to learn more, she said. In the end, eight of the 23 property owners signed off on a landowner agreement that accompanies the work.
The agreements seek buy-in from the property owners, ensuring they’ll help maintain their share of the restoration work once it’s complete. The work will also include a riparian assessment and mapping all footbridges that cross the creek.
This October, volunteers will be sought to help plant native vegetation along the banks of the creek, including willows and dogwoods. They’ll also ask the city to stop mowing the creek banks.
“The overall goal is to have revegetation, but to ensure the landowners are personally invested in the project,” Tenan said. “The ultimate goal of this project is to position it for future Pattee Creek restoration projects.”
Efforts to restore Grant Creek in the Missoula Valley are also moving forward, however slowly. The work is expected to unfold alongside the Mullan BUILD project west of Reserve Street.
Last month, the project got a boost after the Missoula City Council approved a $910,000 federal ARPA grant to begin designing the project.
As initially proposed, the plan would create a buffer as wide as 150 feet along the old stream bed. The creek would be removed from its ditch and allowed to meander through a system of marshes in the planning area.
It also looks to restore the stream’s natural habitat and allow for stormwater recharge.
“It will take a big portion of this area that’s in the floodplain and contain it within a riparian area along the creek itself, and it will have a stream channel capable of carrying the base flow that we see,” city engineer Andy Schultz said last month. “A portion of it is to establish a robust riparian area. That defined floodplain will essentially be a riparian area.”