Meeting spotlights Flathead’s water quality

May 19, 2018 GMT

For decades, rafters and anglers from around the world have admired the Flathead River system’s pristine waters.

The cleanliness of those waters was the topic of a Wednesday evening meeting hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and Glacier National Park.

Since 1976, these two agencies have managed the Flathead’s Three Forks as a federally designated Wild and Scenic River. They’ve recently begun drafting a new Comprehensive River Management Plan to guide their stewardship of the river in coming decades.

To gather local input for this process, the park and forest are hosting monthly public meetings now through October. Each meeting focuses on a specific attribute of the river system. Wednesday night’s event, held at the Cedar Creek Lodge in Columbia Falls, looked at water quality.

Flathead River’s water cleanliness is one of the “outstandingly remarkable values” that merited the Three Forks’ inclusion in the Wild and Scenic River system, explained Craig Kendall, forest hydrologist for the Flathead National Forest. Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, “whatever outstandingly remarkable values that we have, we have to protect and enhance them,” he said.

After reviewing past threats to the area’s hydrology and water quality, Kendall discussed its current challenges.

He considers climate change “by far the biggest threat to these river systems.

“Snowpack in the Flathead Basin is declining...[and] due to warming temperatures, we are also seeing earlier spring runoff, lower stream flows and warmer water temperatures.”

Kendall also acknowledged that oil train traffic along the Flathead’s Middle Fork has been “a big concern lately.” While timber activities can also affect a river’s health, Kendall said that current forest management is “lighter on the land” than it was in past years.

To understand how these stressors are affecting the river, scientists need baseline water quality data from a specific past date, and regular monitoring to see how it changes over time.

Kendall was followed by Mike Meredith, a hydrogeologist at Helena-based HydroSolutions, Inc., the firm coordinating the planning. He explained that the baseline data used for the Flathead’s river-planning process dates from the 1970s, when it was collected in the lead-up to the Three Forks’ designation as Wild and Scenic.

He and Chris Downs, fisheries biologist for Glacier National Park, then discussed how the area has since been monitored. “The consistent theme in all this stuff is no matter what the metric we’re looking at, things aren’t perfect, but they look pretty good,” Downs said. “They don’t look a whole lot different.”

The audience numbered about fifty, and included many longtime guides and river corridor residents. They came well-prepared with their own concerns.

After the speakers concluded, the audience divided into small groups, each of which identified issues they saw along the rivers and reported back to the group.

In addition to those hazards raised by the speakers, they discussed algae along the Middle Fork; the region’s readiness for an oil spill on the Middle Fork; changes in the makeup of the river’s fisheries; dust and agricultural runoff; and issues, like human waste contamination and disturbance of organisms in the river bottom, caused by a surge in visitation to the river. Some of the attendees also questioned the validity of the baseline data the park was using.

At the end of the meeting, the Forest Service collected their comments for review. The agency will continue hearing these and other concerns about the river in the coming months. Its next public meeting will focus on wildlife, and will take place on June 20 from 5:45 to 8 p.m. at a location yet to be determined.

For more information, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/ and click on the link under “3 Forks of the Flathead Wild & Scenic River Comprehensive River Management Plan,” or call Flathead National Forest Recreation Program Manager Chris Prew at 406-758-3538.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.