May 18, 2022
This article was originally title "Hebgen Malfunction" in the April-May 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I’ve often joked that rivers are the coveted corner offices of the outdoor Industry, and fly shops are the office water coolers. Just as starched-suited business people venture from their high-rise cubicles to gather around the water cooler for the relevant news of the day, wadered anglers venture from the streams to gather around the fly bins to do the same. But the chit-chat isn’t just about fishing conditions, hatches, hacks, or who’s fishing off the company dock. Many fly shops are information centers for key conservation matters impacting overall ecosystem health. And they can serve as community hubs where anglers can voice concerns about resource management, environmental policy, public stream access, river pressure, ethics, and more.
When the employees at Galloup’s Slide Inn in Cameron, Montana flicked on the fly shop’s “open” sign on November 30, 2021, the morning began pleasantly unremarkable. So, when customers started coming in just after 9 A.M. with curious expressions, it became apparent that the water cooler was set to be tapped.
“All these customers had gone out to fish the Madison River that morning,” says shop manager and veteran guide John McClure. “And they came in and told us the water was super low. And we told them, ‘yeah, it’s pretty low right now,’ but they pushed back saying, ‘no, guys, it’s not just pretty low . . . it’s way low . . . like, empty.’ So we went back to the river where it runs behind the shop and sure enough, the side channels were almost dry—just a trickle.”
McClure could see several 20-inch brown trout waking in just a few inches of water within the side trough as they tried to find their way to the main channel for more coverage.
“This is an important brown trout spawning area, and the spawn was still going on, so instantly it was a sick, sick feeling,” says McClure.
That’s when McClure and Slide Inn owner Kelly Galloup launched into what would become an exhausting week, starting with urgent calls that morning to other area outfitters and river managers. McClure called Big Sky Anglers owner Joe Moore, who called Madison River Foundation Executive Director Jon Malovich, who called managers at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), and NorthWestern Energy, the publicly traded company that operates Hebgen Dam.
The Madison River flows out of Hebgen Dam, which stores and regulates water for downstream power generation. NorthWestern Energy Director of Hydro Operations Jeremy Clotfelter says that after the company received complaints that the river had dropped midmorning of November 30, they looked at their systems and did not see any indications of the drop.
“The reason we didn’t see anything was that the failure occurred below the waterline. The portion of the shaft connected to a monitor that we can look at to see a drop had not moved. There was no indication that the gate had moved because of where the break occurred.” But, Clotfelter says, they could see on the United States Geological Survey graphs that the drastic reduction in flow had, indeed, happened, dropping from 648 cubic feet per second to 278 in just 15 minutes.
The dam attendant then validated the problem, and operation crews followed up to discover a malfunction with the gate that controls downstream flow. “It was one component of the gate that failed,” says Clotfelter. The gate is lifted by a metal shaft composed of four sections linked by couplers and run by an electric motor. Clotfelter says one of the couplers on the shaft broke, and the gate dropped down, preventing the proper amount of water from flowing out of the lake. “Now that we know what caused the problem, we have to analyze the how and why,” says Clotfelter. He says that could take several months. Clotfelter says when crews do any additional gate work, it’s most efficient to shift to topwater releases from the dam, which can’t happen until there’s proper elevation in the reservoir, which typically means later in the spring.
NorthWestern Energy partnered with Anaconda Foundry Fabrication Company (AFFCO) to machine the new gate component, and the team sent divers underwater for the repair, which was completed late at night on December 1.
“This successful repair was the culmination of outstanding effort by many NorthWestern Energy employees and partner contractors,” says Clotfelter. “From the time this issue was identified, work was underway without stoppage until the river flows were restored.”
By early afternoon of November 30, local guides and area residents had already converged on the river, carefully avoiding redds (spawning nests), rescuing brown and rainbow trout as well as whitefish, sculpins, and large stonefly nymphs from the parched side channels.
For a brief period the afternoon the water dropped, word came through social media that Montana FWP was asking people to stay off the river. “At the time, we had no idea what the drop in flows was from,” says FWP Region 3 Fisheries Manager Travis Horton. “It could have been a debris dam that could break loose, or a short-term dam problem and people would be out there when flows were restored, which could be dangerous. Plus, we were worried about people potentially disturbing the redds.”
Shortly after, however, with updated information from officials at the dam, FWP reversed its request, asking volunteers to once again help with the fish recovery effort.
“As soon as we learned that it could be days before the flows were restored out of the dam, we asked the public to help bring as many fish as possible back into the main channels,” says Horton.
I spent Tuesday evening texting with guides and outfitters who had spent the day on the Madison wrangling fish back into more hospitable currents. Although relieved to have rescued a number of trout and macroinvertebrates, they voiced concerns in a way only deeply dialed resource guardians can. They spoke of the size of Plecoptera (stoneflies) hidden in the rocks, that they saw fewer Ephemeroptera (mayflies) than expected, and how they observed beached Cottidae (sculpins) bouncing back from a preservation state once back in safe pools.
“And instantly the guides and local anglers knew exactly where to go to rescue the most fish,” says John McClure. “We know every channel inside and out—every depth. Every gravel bar, every cutbank, every key spawning area. It was as efficient as it could get.”
Approximately 200 volunteers met at several different sites along the river Wednesday morning, equipped with buckets and nets, and set out to scoop up and quickly relocate displaced fish to deeper channels. The guides at Galloup’s Slide Inn who have been active in public stream access advocacy over the years say the recovery effort united anglers and landowners who have historically been at odds. “There was no private property that day,” says guide Jeremy Clark. “Landowners came out and brought us sandwiches, and we all rallied around a common goal. It’s a reminder that no matter what, we all love this river.”
Largely, the general public learned of the fish rescue opportunity through social media accounts. A number of fly shops from West Yellowstone to Ennis and Bozeman kept their feeds updated with current information from river management agencies and nonprofits.
“All these stakeholders worked together, and guides and outfitters stepped up as leaders, as they do,” says Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana President Jason Fleury. “My phone was ringing off the hook from our membership calling to help out.”
And the dam malfunction triggered a deeper discussion into roles and responsibilities of anglers beyond catching fish.
“When something happens to the resource, guides and outfitters and serious anglers know what it means,” says John McClure. “We speak the language. We know the science. We understand what drastic reductions in flows can do. We understand hydrology and biology because it’s our life every day. It’s not just our work . . . it’s our life. So it’s not just like something happens and we stay on the sidelines waiting for agencies to explain it to us and ask us for our help . . . they know that we know what needs to be done, and we’re seeing more and more that they’ll come to us for information, for feedback, and for assistance.”
“We’re eager to work with them,” says Big Sky Anglers’ Joe Moore, referring to resource management agencies. “It’s not us versus them as far as we’re concerned. We know we are valuable in protecting the resource, and they know it too, so we all need each other out here. We’re confident to speak up for the health of the fishery to hold government agencies, utilities, ourselves, our clients, and the general public accountable.”
“And the Madison in particular is more than a river,” says John Way, owner of The Tackle Shop in Ennis. “It’s the heart and soul of the community. Our lives are tied to this water and everything with it.”
“So, whatever goes on out here, whether it’s discussion of river users, warming, habitat, wildlife projects, or dam malfunctions, we’re on top of it,” says Joe Moore. “We don’t have all the answers. And some of us can be off the mark sometimes. But if I was an engineer or government river manager and I had an experienced, educated person out on the water every day who loved the resource and was willing to be the eyes and ears, I would value that person greatly.”
FWP says there’s not an estimate of how many fish were saved or how many died after the 2021 Hebgen Dam malfunction, and it could be a year or more before any impact to the fishery is fully realized. “I think when we look at the big picture, we likely won’t see a massive loss, which is a testament to wild trout management and the resiliency of wild trout,” says FWP’s Travis Horton.
Just over one week after the incident, NorthWestern Energy filed a report with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) stating that it violated two requirements under its federal license, including a rapid decrease in flows in which the levels dropped by 67% within 24 hours of the dam malfunction. FERC requires that Hebgen Dam not reduce flows more than 10% in 24 hours. FERC requires the dam manage releases to remain above 600 cfs at the Kirby Ranch USGS gauge, but the report states that the malfunction caused the river to flow at 395 cfs there.
In early January, 2022, three organizations formally requested an investigation of NorthWestern Energy’s permit violations. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Madison River Foundation filed a citizens complaint with FERC regarding NorthWestern Energy’s failure to uphold conditions of Hebgen Dam’s license. The groups are requesting that FERC require NorthWestern Energy to fund a thorough, third-party investigation of the malfunction, and to hold the permittee accountable. In a joint press release, Jon Malovich, executive director of Madison River Foundation says, “This is just a single step in the right direction of many more to come to change the way we can all protect and manage the water that flows in Madison River.”
Malovich cited an insect study set for completion in July that would provide a greater understanding of changes to the river’s macroinvertebrates. The funding comes from MRF and the Madison River Fisheries Technical Advisory Committee (MadTAC). MadTAC is NorthWestern Energy’s tool to assist in implementing the fisheries, wildlife, and habitat programs on the Madison per FERC’s requirements for the protection, mitigation, and enhancement of these resources.
MadTAC has garnered $14.5 million for fisheries resource projects in the program’s 20-year run, including matching funds. “An important project we’ve got going now with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is a sediment mobility model. We’re looking at what flows mobilize the substrate in the Madison, and how this impacts channels and spawning,” says Andy Welch, NorthWestern Energy hydro license compliance group manager.
“This is stuff we care about and are deeply involved in as community leaders. We’ve been working with FWP for 15 years on spawning channels and encouraging studies,” says Joe Moore. “In the past, information from guides and outfitters or from the general public was taken as anecdotal. Now, there’s a sense that we can and should have a closer seat at the table and a channel for our information that’s beyond anecdotal.”
Certainly the Hebgen Dam malfunction dominated the water cooler talk in much of Montana and Idaho during the winter months. But venture into any fly shop elsewhere the country, and I’m willing to bet the conversation won’t be hard to find either, just as Montana water coolers are often abuzz with talk of Florida’s water quality issues. The Madison River is a classic symbol of Western fly fishing. And the angling community’s involvement in its overall health sets a precedent for how fly fishers can rally around any fishery, coast to coast.
As long as that fly shop “open” light is on, many anglers believe, there’s always hope for healthy fisheries. There’s a chance that water cooler chit-chat leads to compelling discussion that leads to cooperation that leads to action in support of cherished rivers.
Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she continues to guide the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her daughters Ella and Delaney, and her partner Ebon.