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Rough Waters Ahead: Restoring the Blackfoot River

Rough Waters Ahead: Restoring the Blackfoot River

Our report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment America Research & Policy Center, tells the story of the EPA’s work to protect and restore our nation’s great waterways – including the Delaware River Basin, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and Montana’s waterways – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. Our previous post described how the EPA held a dairy farm accountable for illegally discharging manure to a Puget Sound tributary in violation of the Clean Water Act, endangering the health of Puget Sound and its residents. In this post, we bring you a story of how the EPA funded local groups to help restore the Blackfoot watershed.

Although the classic novella A River Runs Through It was set on the Blackfoot River, a 1992 movie adaptation had to be filmed on the Gallatin River because the Blackfoot was too polluted. In 1975, the failure of a dam released thousands of tons of toxic mine tailings into the Blackfoot River, causing trout populations to plummet and destroying habitat for miles downstream. This added to the damage caused by decades of other mining activity, grazing, logging, irrigation and road runoff.

Local groups started by Blackfoot Valley landowners engaged state and federal agencies to begin restoration work on the river and its tributaries. Support from private landowners was crucial to accomplish watershed-scale restoration work that included rebuilding and reconnecting stream channels, replanting trees and bushes on streambanks, building fences to keep livestock out of the water, removing culverts and other barriers to fish passage, upgrading irrigation equipment to withdraw less water, installing fish screens to keep fish out of irrigation ditches, and restoring wetlands.

Some of this restoration work was funded with more than $1.2 million in grant money provided by the EPA to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality during the 2000s. The DEQ in turn funded groups in the watershed that hired local residents and contractors. The projects that received funding in the Blackfoot watershed include:

  • Efforts to control sediment and nutrient pollution on five tributaries of the Blackfoot River, and to develop a pollution control plan in conjunction with local landowners, anglers and others;
  • Restoration of the banks and channels of Nevada, Braziel and Dick creeks, and reduction of sediment pollution from roads into Liverpool and Park creeks; and
  • Monitoring of restoration projects to document water quality improvements.

The Blackfoot today is a naturally functioning, healthy river home to wild and native trout. Nearly 3,000 acres of wetlands have been restored, and the removal of barriers has opened up an additional 600 miles of streams to fish. Fish populations have begun to rebound. For instance, cutthroat trout in the middle Blackfoot River have increased from less than one pound of trout per 1,000 feet of river in 1989 to 26 pounds per 1,000 feet in 2016. Anglers spend 40,000 days every year fishing the Blackfoot and its tributaries.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal zeroes out the state grant program that helped fund restoration of the Blackfoot watershed.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore Montana’s waterways. Our report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on Montana’s Waterways, illustrates the EPA’s work with five additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Seventeen ongoing Superfund cleanups, mining and farm runoff, and excessive discharge from sewage treatment plants, show that we still have work to do in cleaning up Montana’s rivers and lakes. But budget cuts will put the EPA’s protection, enforcement, restoration, research and education work in danger – threatening the future health of the state’s waterways.

Montana’s waterways are critical to the health and welfare of our families, our communities, and wildlife. For 40 years, EPA has been working to protect clean water in Montana from threats like mine drainage, agricultural and urban runoff, and industrial activity. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up Montana’s rivers and lakes and ensure that they are healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

Photo: Extensive restoration work, funded in part by the EPA, has returned the Blackfoot to a naturally functioning and healthy river home to wild and native trout river. Credit: BLM via Flickr, CC BY 2.0