Anglers Must Protect the Future of the Beaverhead River

By: Guy Alsentzer & Wade Fellin


Anglers who love the Beaverhead are dedicated to protecting its water quality.
Photo by Four Rivers Fishing Co.

For three summers in a row, Montana’s Beaverhead River turned milky green, and algae lined its banks, severely limiting angling opportunities on this famous trophy trout stream. But the nuisance of cleaning algae from fly lines and hooks is not the real problem: unnatural turbidity is also degrading insect habitat and hatches, and elevated nitrogen levels are causing bubbles and sores on the gill plates of rainbows and browns. These pollution challenges represent the nexus between management of upstream Clark Canyon Dam and Reservoir, water quality struggles on the Beaverhead, and a proposal to retrofit Clark Canyon Dam as a hydropower facility. As concern grows within the fly-fishing community, one advocacy group is taking action.


Monitoring the health of aquatic-insect populations helps understand the effects of increased turbidity.
Photo by Wade Fellin

Normally in Montana, not much can be done about the negative impacts that dams create in waterways. Lucky for the Beaverhead, right now there is a proposal to turn Clark Canyon Dam into a hydroelectric facility; through the hydroelectric licensing process, Montana can – and must – address ongoing water quality challenges. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper needs your help to make sure Montana follows the law and uses science to protect this trophy trout stream. Inaction here means not only a lost opportunity, but a degraded Beaverhead becoming the new status quo.


Algae blooms lead to reduced visibility and damage to insect habitat.
Photo by Tim Mosolf

For three-years in a row the Upper Beaverhead has experienced extreme turbidity and unnatural algal blooms associated with management and operation of Clark Canyon Dam and Reservoir. During this same time, a proposal to retrofit Clark Canyon Dam into a hydropower facility has gained momentum, a decision requiring what is called a §401 Water Quality Certification from the state of Montana.

A Section 401 Certification is a state pollution license designed to ensure that a project and its activities are appropriately conditioned so that downstream water quality and uses – like fishing and swimming – are protected. Unfortunately, when push came to shove on the Beaverhead’s hydroelectric project, the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a 401 Certification that only addressed certain pollution impacts, while ignoring others.


Poor water quality and stressed insect populations can adversely affect the health of the trout.
Photo by Mark Meissner

“In licensing the proposed Clark Canyon Hydroelectric Project, DEQ cannot cherry-pick pollution issues at the expense of the Beaverhead River and the valuable local economy and tailwater fishery it supports,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

“Instead of using strong science and its full legal authority to create a win-win management plan for all stakeholders and the Beaverhead, DEQ decided to pass the buck on addressing long-standing pollution issues that are destroying the public’s right to clean water and have largely shut down river recreation during late summer months,” said Wade Fellin, Program Director.

For this reason, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper took legal action and appealed the State’s 401 Certification. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper refuses to accept poor river conditions, the decline of one of Montana’s best fisheries, and harm to local citizens and businesses, all because Montana’s government refuses to ask challenging questions and create and implement innovative solutions. Montana must use science, common sense, and follow the law in taking necessary steps to protect the Beaverhead and the important human and ecological communities it supports.


The future of the Beaverhead’s water and fishery requires action now.
Photo by Big Hole Lodge

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is not anti-hydro and not anti-agriculture; rather, they are pro clean water and pro being aggressive in seizing legitimate opportunities to “rebalance” a skewed system of water resources management for at least one section of one Montana river, an opportunity that only exists right now, and the result of which will set the stage for management and conditions on the Upper Beaverhead for at least the next 30 years.

Please visit www.standupforthebeaverhead.org to learn more and consider making a donation toward protecting the Beaverhead. Your contribution is tax-deductible and goes entirely towards protecting the Beaverhead from pollution!  Learn more about the Beaverhead’s turbidity issues here and more about Upper Missouri Waterkeeper here.

Guy Alsentzer and Wade Fellin work for Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, a 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.

3 thoughts on “Anglers Must Protect the Future of the Beaverhead River”

  1. Guy and Wade – you guys are conservation heroes for going to the mat on this. That was such an amazing river and I have no doubtconfident that efforts like yours with our support will bring it back!

  2. Guy and Wade, at Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, are the future of conservation activism in Montana! They deserve your support in any size donation you can make.

    There are some massive and negative impacts coming to Montana rivers in the coming years due to over-development! The days of blindly throwing money at the largest most popular orgs and ‘hoping for the best’ is a thing of the past.

    With these guys you can expect action, sometimes in the unfortunate but legal-form; yet you’ll see what those before you were forced to resort to in efforts to stop the greediest on earth from taking from us less fortunate.

    This is your land, your water, no matter your income or background; …please support those who are willing to defend it.

    Greg Lewis
    Publisher/Montana Fly Fishing Magazine

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