Anglers Must Stand Up for the Beaverhead

Written by: Guy Alsentzer and Wade Fellin

The Beaverhead River is home to some beautiful trout.
Photo courtesy Big Hole Lodge

The Beaverhead is one of the Lower 48’s finest fisheries. Its upper reaches are a classic tailwater fishery, while its middle and lower stretches more resemble a spring creek, with clear water, cutbanks, and dense overhangs. With about 100 miles of floatable, wadeable, and fishable water, the Beaverhead supports a strong local recreational economy in Southwest Montana as boaters, fishermen, birders, and many others consistently arrive to enjoy this local treasure.

The Beaverhead also supports dozens of local ranches and farms, not to mention the City of Dillon’s public water supply. The important water and irrigation needs of the Beaverhead valley and its residents prompted the government to long-ago construct Clark Canyon Dam, which collects the Red Rocks and Horse Prairie Creeks, in essence the headwaters of the Beaverhead.

Unfortunately, this prize waterway—and the local economies and communities it supports—face a growing threat.

For the second summer in a row, the Beaverhead changed from clear and cool to markedly cloudy, with its banks and eddies covered by intense algal blooms, including harmful blue-green algae, above and below Clark Canyon Dam. Local outfitters found the Upper Beaverhead unfishable from Clark Canyon Dam to Barrett’s Diversion well into September, and one Dillon resident said he captured algae from his tap water.

For this reason, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the federal Bureau of Reclamation (which owns Clark Canyon Dam) held a public meeting in Dillon in October 2015 to share what its scientists know and, of course, what they don’t know.

The algae blooms on the Beaverhead continue to cause problems.
Photo courtesy Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

All scientists agreed that suspended sediment and unnatural algal growth caused the water clarity issue, but they do not fully understand what is going on in the reservoir to cause blowouts and severe algal blooms two years in a row. Nor could they explain why the worst turbidity was observed only as far down as the Barrett’s bulkhead diversion dam above the city of Dillon.

DEQ and FWP do know three items for certain. First, there are unnatural, elevated levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment entering the reservoir from Red Rocks and Horse Prairie Creeks. Second, the dam has reached its “trapping” lifespan after nineteen years of collecting sediment. Third and last, when the dam discharges water, it can contain unnaturally large concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and temperature swings, creating nasty algal blooms like those of the last two seasons. So what’s to be done?

Well, Clark Canyon isn’t alone: it’s one of several dams throughout the state facing the issue of sediment “trapping capacity” and related water quality problems. A similar situation in the Ruby Reservoir during the 1990s resulted in fish kills and, ultimately, a fix involving dredging trapped sediment. Yet in spite of what’s known, our decisionmakers haven’t created any plan to address the Beaverhead’s summer algae problems, nor suggested anything concrete to address trapped sediment aside from the prospect of further study. The Beaverhead is too important—to agriculture, families, and fishermen—for endless discussions; we need to proactively address nutrient and sediment pollution now.

The river’s turbidity in late summer suggested serious water-quality problems.
Photo courtesy Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

Further muddying the water, the public should know there’s a proposal afloat to turn Clark Canyon Dam into a hydroelectric facility. A new hydroelectric facility, combined with the Upper Beaverhead’s ongoing algae and clarity problems, raises several red flags. Hydroelectric facilities can create a host of new water quality problems including unnatural temperature swings and low dissolved oxygen levels to name a few. The Clark Canyon hydroelectric project is of special concern because its operation also has the potential to exacerbate existing sediment and algae problems already confronting the Beaverhead.

Fortunately, there are legal safeguards available to protect clean water. A new hydroelectric facility requires a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as well as a §401 water quality certification from the Montana DEQ. Both agencies must holistically review the proposal and place sufficient conditions in respective permits to protect local waterways. In light of the Beaverhead’s ongoing water quality challenges it is critical any new hydroelectric facility has, as part of its license, the duty to address sediment trapped behind the dam and related summer algae blooms. The problem, of course, is that we can’t always trust our government to do its job.

The time is fast-approaching when not only local Beaverhead Valley folks, but everyone who cares about the Beaverhead, can provide public comment on the proposed Clark Canyon hydroelectric facility. The Clark Canyon hydroelectric proposal is the public’s opportunity to stand up for the Beaverhead and demand our decisionmakers ensure any new hydroelectric facility protects local water quality, downstream users, fisheries, and proactively addresses a critical issue—the water quality threat posed by unnatural sediment trapped behind the dam.

To learn more about the Beaverhead’s challenges and the proposed Clark Canyon Hydroelectric Project, visit Upper Missouri Waterkeeper online.

There will be an opportunity in the coming months for public engagement when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) solicits public comment.

In the meantime, advocating for the Beaverhead River requires ample staff time and resources to hire expert scientists and no other advocacy organization is working on this unique issue. We encourage you to join Upper Missouri Waterkeeper as members and donate directly to this cause.

Guy Alsentzer and Wade Fellin work for Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, the only water advocacy nonprofit exclusively dedicated to defending clean water and community health throughout the 25,000 sq. miles of SW and West Central Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin.

15 thoughts on “Anglers Must Stand Up for the Beaverhead”

  1. Pingback: The Murky Beaverhead | GREAT DIVIDE OUTFITTERS
  2. I think that we are able to fish and have clean water downstream of Hydro Electric damns all the time. Having this Hydro Electric power can help provide a source of clean cheap power that will help spur industry in the area. I vote yes for a hydro electric damn at Clark Canyon Reservoir.

    -Mason Giem

  3. I fished it in August and landed the biggest rainbow I have ever caught. It was the only fish I caught in 3 days. Very murky the rest of the time.

  4. It’s hard to know where to start to debunk the exaggerations, falsehoods, and hubris in this article. But as someone who lives in Dillon and has worked for the Beaverhead Watershed Committee I must help the readers of this article see through some of the fluff presented. First off, it should be noted that The Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is a group that is primarily focused on suing the government to enforce the Clean Water Act and making the government pay for their lawyer fees through the Equal Access to Justice Act. When they say that they are “they only water advocacy nonprofit exclusively dedicated to defending clean water and community health… in the Upper Missouri River Basin”, this is clever wordsmithing meant to misguide. There are several local watershed groups that have been working with landowners, stakeholders, and government in the Upper Missouri Basin for many years to systematically address water quality issues through grant funded watershed restoration projects (not litigation). The Beaverhead Watershed Committee has been doing this work in the basin since 2001. The waterkeeper presence arrived in 2013. The executive director and founder of the waterkeeper is Guy Alsentzer, a young law school graduate from Pennsylvania who is new to Montana and the Upper Missouri Basin.
    Second, the issue of water clarity in the Beaverhead River is very new and it is certainly not being ignored by any watershed group or government agency. The summer 2014 algal bloom was unprecedented on the Beaverhead, and a freak event. The summer 2015 algal bloom was the first time that a pattern could be identified. The Bureau of Reclamation (BoR), Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the Beaverhead Watershed Committee held a public meeting in the fall of 2015 to discuss the issue and how to proceed. There is no foot dragging to speak of here. It is a new and complex problem that is unlikely to be solvable on the hasty time scale that the article seems to call for. Furthermore, this article points to the combination of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus as being the culprit in these algal blooms, but makes no mention of the FWP hypothesis that unique summer weather patterns have influenced the temperature profile of the reservoir and also may play a key role. The article suggests that the phosphorus levels are unnaturally elevated and are coming from the Red Rock River (not Red Rocks Creek, as the article refers it as) and Horse Prairie Creek. A local U.S. Forest Service hydrologist has said that the phosphorus source is thought to be a natural geologic formation in the Upper Horse Prairie Basin. This issue is being examined by all of the appropriate entities and is a top priority that is unlikely to be solved through any litigation.
    Third, the planned hydropower facilities on Clark Canyon Dam are not nearly as big of a threat as they are made out to be in the article. Clark Canyon Hydro, LLC is a Canadian held company that plans to sell the power to Idaho Power Company, and create one new permanent job in Beaverhead County. They have already held two public meetings in Dillon to explain their project, and neither of the authors of this article attended those meetings. I know this because I did attend both meetings. Had they attended they would know that the hydropower facilities will operate on run of the river, meaning that the hydropower company will have no authority to call for any water and must utilize whatever releases are called for by irrigators with water rights and BoR. Dissolved oxygen (DO) will be produced via the turbulent mixing of released water – the same way it always has been. In fact, there will be additional safeguards to protect DO, including a back-up oxygenation pump and alarm systems to let reservoir operators know when DO levels are getting out of balance. While it would be nice to ask Clark Canyon Hydro LLC to help pay for addressing reservoir sediment, it seems a bit unfair and arbitrary to legally obligate them to deal with this issue that has been building for 50 years prior to their arrival. We would all love to dredge the reservoir to protect fisheries and store more water, but our government and our community simply does not have the millions of dollars that would be required.
    Guy Alsentzer, Wade Fellin, and the waterkeeper are stepping on toes in the Beaverhead. Their invasive and confrontational approach to dealing with issues in the Beaverhead is not constructive nor community oriented. Their primary constituency appears to be out of state anglers who spend days or weeks a year on the Beaverhead, because the folks who have lived here for years, decades, and generations don’t know who the hell the waterkeepers are. If you would like to contribute your time or money to constructive efforts to work with the Beaverhead community on water resource issues, visit to find out how.

  5. Orvis. Shame on you. Do your homework. Publish non-inflammatory articles tailored to getting work accomplished on the ground rather than finger-pointing and potentially further tying up our legal system.

    To get your facts, PLEASE contact each of the non-profit watershed groups which comprise the Upper Missouri whom are comprised of local, long-term residents whom have been working diligently on watershed issues such as this one.

    ~Jodi Kountz, Jefferson River Watershed Council – Drought Management Coordinator

  6. Wow, what a well written article. Props to Guy and Wade for doing everything they can to make the beautiful Montana rivers a better and healthier place for animals and humans. I don’t understand why so many people are against them when they have so much experience, research, and passion for this issue. Look at the big picture people: they are trying to improve the quality of water. Countless other people and organizations are also putting forth effort for the same end result. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is just reaching more people statewide and nationwide and they are doing everything they can to make this important issue known.

    1. Thank you for your support! These rivers need ALL the help they can get! Thanks to all who care and work hard to protect them.

  7. The City of Dillon’s public water supply source is groundwater, not the Beaverhead River. A historic intake on Rattlesnake Creek is inactive.

  8. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is grateful for the longstanding and continuing tradition of hard work and collaborative conservation made by each and every one of the foundations, committees, and conservation districts in Southwest and West-central Montana.

    Each of the headwater tributaries of the Missouri are facing challenges that are not only similar in nature and context, but also alike in their contribution to downstream water quality—whether helpful or harmful.
    In turn, these common challenges to the Basin require both wide-reaching and local, boots-on-the-ground approaches, each of which has unique, interdependent, and positive value to protecting and improving a public trust resource: Montana’s water.

    The Beaverhead River is near and dear to the hearts of people far beyond the boundaries of Beaverhead County; whether someone lives 2 or 2,000 miles from the Beaverhead, all folks that care should have the opportunity to be involved in creating a better future for this river. We are encouraged by the passionate responses elicited by our article because, until this time, the challenges facing the Beaverhead as well as the work that has been done to restore it have been largely underreported, while now the opportunity for a broader, inclusive dialogue is present.

    We always welcome constructive discussion and for this reason are hosting local “Meet Your Waterkeeper” evenings in communities across the Upper Missouri River Basin. All are welcome to join us for a beer at the Beaverhead Brewing Company in Dillon, MT tomorrow night, Friday December 11th, to discuss our goals, intentions, and how everyone can work together to stand up for the Beaverhead.

  9. The way to improve water quality is through collaborative conservation efforts with people who live and work in the watershed. Stakeholders in the Beaverhead watershed, including the Beaverhead Watershed Committee, local land and business owners, FWP, USFS, DNRC, DEQ, BLM, MBMG, BOR, and many more, have put forth very successful and collaborative conservation projects that have created a shining example of how watershed conservation can and should look. People are upset because, as this article demonstrates, the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is either unaware of these efforts or is choosing to ignore them and it is just plain insulting. Inaccurate information, such as what’s presented in this article, undermines the collaborative efforts that have been going on the watershed for over a decade and show the immense disconnect that the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper have to both the landscape and the people that live and work there.

  10. I’m curious of why the DEQ was unaware of ANY water turbidity issues on the Beaverhead until I sent photos on August 12th. I feel whatever efforts which were in ace prior to that date were obviously ineffective.

  11. well well, maybe people SHOULD be getting upset! I did not see anything inflammatory in the article, or any threats of legal action. Attacking one of the authors because he has ONLY lived in MT for 4 years? Come on now – the spirit of the article is clearly that action needs to be taken. I personally drove by the river in August and was aghast at how it appeared – as a former fisheries biologist I am certain there must have been some fish kill. Additionally – the collaborative efforts of the agencies all listed by others in their comments have resulted in what exists TODAY – 40 cfs. Good work people – the fisheries resource is certainly being well taken care of! I can only imagine how many 60w light bulbs will be generated from the hydroelectric power from the mighty Beaverhead!!

    1. David: Glad you personally drove by the Beaverhead once this summer. Hope you stop by again soon and often. The current FWP fisheries biologist for the Beaverhead River and the Beaverhead Watershed Committee would be happy to discuss the facts about the observed effects on the fishery with you if you have time and interest to check in with them. Participation on your part is welcomed and encouraged, especially given your expertise and experience. Unfortunately the volume of water that is physically available in the basin and the water appropriations in the basin under Montana water law do not afford any public agency or non-profit group the ability to dictate TODAY’s flows beyond the minimum of 25 cfs. As for the number of 60w light bulbs that the proposed Clark Canyon hydropower facilities has the capacity to illuminate, that I am not sure. You might find the answer in Clark Canyon Hydro LLC’s initial consultation document, which can be found on the Beaverhead Watershed Committee’s website under the Resource Library tab. While you’re there, feel free to brush up on the rest of the details of how the proposed facilities will and will not affect the current reservoir operations and check in with the various agencies with water resource management authority and local stakeholder groups to gain additional perspective on this. If you have any concerns about the number of 60w lightbulbs that Clark Canyon could light, be sure to provide your input to FERC during the public comment period.

      1. thanks Chris – I have only lived here 35 years – I don’t know how I would have proceeded without your input. My point – which I believe was the point of the original article, is that 1) there is a problem; 2) what has been done on the ground so far has not solved that problem; 3) all affected should, and WILL need to work collaboratively to solve that problem. You seem passionate about the subject. Hopefully you will be one of the ones to help solve the problem. Nuff said.

  12. Pingback: Beaverhead River Turbidity is a Continuing Concern

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *