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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Meeting at the Confluence Reaps Multiple Benefits

 

Andi Bourne, Pathfinder

The confluence of Trail Creek (left) and Mountain Creek (right) with the new head gate structure installed for the irrigation diversion that supplies Double Arrow Golf Course.

SEELEY LAKE - Restoration work at the confluence of Trail Creek and Mountain Creek is nearing completion. The site is behind the Homestead Cabin on Double Arrow Ranch. The work is a result of more than 15 collaborators working to restore instream flows for Trail Creek and improve the irrigation system for the front nine holes on the Double Arrow Golf Course.

After nearly 15 years of discussions between Double Arrow Enterprise and Double Arrow Land Owners Association (DARLOA), an agreement was finally reached this summer following the water rights adjudication process establishing flow levels for both diversion and instream needs.

In the late 1990s, DARLOA landowners were becoming concerned about the fish habitat in Trail Creek. However, until the water rights claim by the Double Arrow Enterprises was resolved, no work could be done to restore the stream.

In the fall of 2014, the state water courts adjudicated and settled in the summer of 2015 on the diversion right for Double Arrow Enterprises for irrigation.

According to Double Arrow Enterprises owner Tom Donich, the water rights for the golf course date back to the early 1900s. In the late 1950s and 60s, Double Arrow Lodge owner C.B. Rich used the water to irrigate his pastures. Now it is used to keep the golf course green in the summer.

"My main concern was that the new design gives us the water we are supposed to have," said Donich who added water is the lifeblood of the golf course.

DARLOA's concern was too much water was being taken out of the stream during low water years jeopardizing the fish.

"Here was a local example of trying to balance DARLOA's rights with the golf course's rights of when and how much water can be used," said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Fisheries Biologist Ladd Knotek. "This was a voluntary project and Tom Donich didn't have to do this. He [trusted] us to keep the golf course green while we did this."

Current chairman of DARLOA's Parks and Resources Committee Kevin Clader highlighted another issue with the old diversion structure. He remembers golfing on the Double Arrow Golf Course and seeing an eight to nine inch cutthroat trout swimming in the irrigation ditch.

"It was trapped. I realized something needed to be done," said Clader. "We [the committee] needed to find out the priority that Trail Creek has in the bigger picture to help with funding the project."

Knotek and FWP fisheries technician Will Schreck surveyed Trail Creek and found bull trout. This combined with the fact that Trail Creek is a tributary to Morrell Creek elevated the creek's importance for habitat and restoration grants.

"My biggest fear was not getting enough interest in the project to fund it," said Clader.

Once the water rights were finalized, Ryen Neudecker with the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (BBCTU) started working as the project coordinator. She collaborated with thirteen partners to fund the $70,000 project. River Design Group out of Whitefish, Mont. drew up the final design for the project and presented it to the stakeholders.

Donich said he and golf course supervisor Robert Walton reviewed the plan before agreeing to it. He was impressed with the depth and precision of the plan and saw no reason not to proceed.

The Trail Creek Project included four objectives of the project: keep fish out of the irrigation diversion; provide upstream fish passage by upgrading the existing instream irrigation infrastructure; install a stable check structure and head works that diverts fish and minimizes deposition in the diversion inlet while providing the prescribed amount of water to the golf course; and maintain the natural character of the stream and the minimum instream flow necessary for connectivity and stream integrity below the diversion on Trail Creek.

To reduce the project's implementation impacts, the creek needed to be diverted into Mountain Creek and dewatered. Knotek worked with Seeley Lake Elementary (SLE) junior high students Oct. 15 to remove all the fish in the creek prior to draining it. Knotek shocked the fish and the students removed them from the stream, placed them in buckets and released them on the other side of the confluence. Knotek said they removed about 200 fish including cutthroat, brook, brown and bull trout along with sculpins.

Less than 200 yards above the confluence, Trail Creek was cutting into the bank and over topping the banks during periods of high flow. This dumped a tremendous amount of sediments into the stream and would overflow into Mountain Creek and flood the outlet of the diversion. Part of the project solidified the stream channel by using native material to stabilize the bank. A rock cross chain was put in place for habitat and to help train the channel.

"It functions and looks natural but works for the landowners' objectives," said Knotek. Knotek added that this restoration work should make a peripheral wetland between the creeks that can help buffer high flows and restore it to its natural function.

At the confluence there was a pin and plank wood structure that created an artificial dam. Knotek said the stream couldn't pass sediment and the fish could not get up stream despite a fish ladder next to the structure.

TNT Excavating, Inc. out of Ovando, Mont. used oversized rocks in the stream to step down the creek. Knotek said this makes it feel and function like a natural channel versus something artificial. This step down design is proven to accommodate fish passage.

The confluence of Mountain and Trail Creeks was also the location of the diversion ditch. All work was surveyed in with a very tight tolerance to balance the diversion and the instream flow.

TNT owner Ty Smith said that only 10 percent of the rocks used at the confluence can be seen. Large boulders were hauled in to bring the creek into specifications.

A self-cleaning fish screen, built by Pitman Machining of Seeley Lake, was installed for the diversion. Once the head gate is opened, water flows across a paddle wheel that runs a set a brushes that clean the fish screen. Water is allowed to pass freely into the diversion pipe and to the golf course, while sediment, debris and fish are diverted through a tube and back into Trail Creek below the confluence.

Donich is tasked with maintaining the fish screen. "We had to clean the old one every day [due to sediment build up during high water]. This is really going to help us in the long run. Next spring will be interesting."

The Lolo National Forest (LNF) was one of the funding partners for the project. Region 1 Fisheries Biologist Shane Hendrickson said Trail Creek flows for approximately 13 miles with 11 miles being on the National Forest. The LNF was able to use the Wyden Authority, which allows for an exemption to fund projects off National Forest land that will benefit the National Forest, to help fund the project.

Ryen Neudecker

The confluence prior to the Trail Creek Project including a pin and wood structure creating a dam that was impassible by fish. The fish ladder was the green structure on the left of the photo.

"The cumulative effects on the upper reaches of Trail Creek are huge," said Hendrickson. "We are removing the negative and replacing it with positive changes."

All of the partners were invited to tour the project site Oct. 23. With the exception of seeding the top of the irrigation pipe and more revegetation work to naturalize the site, the project was complete. Local students will help with the naturalization by planting native vegetation in the next couple of weeks.

"The first words out of my mouth were, 'It's a creek again,'" said Clader. "It was a really pleasant site this morning. Thank you to everyone."

"This is a win-win," said Jim Haueter, a member of the Parks and Resources Committee. "We started out nose-to-nose with the golf course. Now we have a whole new fish diversion structure and other stream restoration work that greatly improved the habitat of Trail Creek."

Neudecker said, "The really cool thing about a project like this is you have both – a green golf course and fish in the stream."

 

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