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Silver Bow Creek Restoration

Silver Bow Creek is now a unique fishery with rich nutrients that provide food year round. Find out how it made the comeback.

Silver Bow Creek Restoration
Before and after (above) photos of Silver Bow Creek show how a floodplain polluted by mining was restored by government and environmental agencies. Photo: Gregg Mullen, Montana State NRDA

In 1908, a massive flood washed millions of tons of copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, and arsenic 100 miles downstream from the Anaconda Copper mine at Butte, Montana. The torrent of 1908 destroyed Silver Bow Creek that extends from Butte approximately 22 miles to the Warm Springs Ponds, the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Today, the Clark Fork is still one of the most polluted watersheds in the country, gradually recovering from a century of mining for copper and other heavy metals in its many headwaters.

For over 100 years, Silver Bow Creek lay dead as a door mouse. Five million cubic yards of toxic mine tailings covered the creek bottom. Raw untreated effluent from mine sites near Butte flowed unimpeded. Aquatic life ceased to exist. The 1,300-acre flood plain was completely devoid of vegetation, and incapable of supporting life. Silver Bow Creek was an industrial sewer. It stunk of brimstone. The locals called it "shit creek."

But in 1983, Silver Bow Creek finally caught a break. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified Silver Bow Creek in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin as one of the nation's largest Superfund sites, and named the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) as the "potentially responsible party" for cleanup costs. ARCO purchased the Anaconda Company in 1977, and Anaconda had been responsible for the release of heavy metals into the watershed since the early 1900s. The EPA designation opened the door to the second largest lawsuit ever filed under the Natural Resources Damage and Assessment Program (NRDA).

"Natural resources that are damaged as a result of an oil spill such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska or a hazardous substances release, which was the case in Silver Bow Creek, qualify for compensation to remediate the toxins, to restore the resource to its pre-impact condition, and to pay for the public's cost for not being able to use the resource," said Gregg Mullen, Senior Environment Specialist for Montana's NRDA Program.

Before (above) and after photos of Silver Bow Creek show how a floodplain polluted by mining was restored by government and environmental agencies. Photo: Gregg Mullen, Montana State NRDA

Since 1990, the NRDA under the arm of Montana's Department of Justice, has been responsible for assessing environmental damage to Silver Bow Creek and pursuing litigation against ARCO. Mullen says the EPA and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in November of 1995 issued a record of decision that spelled out the remedy and rationale behind a massive remediation and restoration plan for Silver Bow Creek and the contaminated floodplain.

"We knew this opportunity would present one of the largest, if not the largest, remediation and restoration projects ever undertaken," said Mullen. Then in 1999, everything fell into place when ARCO agreed to pay $215 million to the State of Montana to resolve claims. "The money gave us the green light to begin implementing cleanup plans," said Mullen.

The seed of planning does not always sow fertile ground, especially in projects this size. However, anticipating the settlement from ARCO, several state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups were in place and ready to act.

"We were in the lead and began efforts to immediately clean up Silver Bow Creek as well as the flood plain," says Joel Chavez, construction manager for Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

Chavez and his team were charged with the design, documentation, and monitoring of the remediation and restoration program. He says that design changes to Silver Bow Creek included building new channels, widening the creek, creating a completely new creek bottom, and constructing new riverbanks.

"We had to dig up over 5 million cubic yards of surface contaminants. It was daunting." Meanwhile, the immense task of completely reseeding more than 1,300 acres of floodplain and 22 miles of creek banks with native plants, grasses, and shrubs fell to Richard Prodgers, principal of Big Horn Environmental Sciences, one of the many private contractors hired by the State of Montana.

"It was a moonscape. It was dead, devastated, and completely devoid of life. It's damn hard to believe unless you saw it for yourself," says Prodgers. Gazing at before and after pictures supports his claim. What was a cesspool oozing decay in 1999 is today a living wetland of wild grasses, native trees, shrubs, and abundant wildlife.


Native Trout

But what of the native fish that were once so abundant that the Salish Tribe in the late 1800s called Silver Bow Creek "the place where you shoot them in the head?"

"We found a couple of westslope cutthroat and a few brook trout in Silver Bow near the mouth of German Gulch creek in 2008. We were pretty darn excited," exclaimed Jason Lindstrom, area fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Since then, in annual samplings and shocking along with pit tagging, Lindstrom says they have continued to record gradual increases in brook trout and westslope cutthroat. Lindstrom says a new fish barrier about 13 miles downstream from Butte will help keep brown and brook trout from infiltrating westslope habitat.

"It's like a mini dam that allows fish to travel downstream over the dam, but won't allow them to return upstream. We are especially concerned about rainbows migrating upstream and interbreeding."

German Gulch Creek is the main tributary to Silver Bow Creek, and Lindstrom says it's vital to increasing trout populations because it runs clear and cold, and historically has held westslope cutthroat. However, once again Montana's historic legacy of toxic mining wastes poses a threat. "There is concern over an abandoned gold mine at the headwaters of German Gulch Creek. We need to be very careful to monitor remediation efforts there so that no toxic metals flow downstream into Silver Bow Creek."

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) echoes Lindstrom's concerns. "I knew that if there was any chance we would ever get native westslope cutthroat trout back into Silver Bow, tributaries like German Gulch Creek were critical," he said.

Farling has been an advocate for restoring the Clark Fork River Basin beginning in 1994 when he worked for the Clark Fork Coalition, the successful nonprofit organization that led the charge in 2008 to remove the Milltown Dam near the confluence of the Clark Fork and Black Foot Rivers.

In 2012, TU helped implement the first-ever special catch-and-release regulations for westslope cutthroat on Silver Bow Creek. Under Farling's leadership, TU continues to monitor the Silver Bow project, as well as work on an impressive list of habitat restoration initiatives throughout Montana.

Another key player in Silver Bow's resurrection is Silver Bow County Mayor Matt Vincent: "I never imagined a time in my life that I would live to see the day when native trout returned to Silver Bow Creek," he said.

Vincent campaigned during his election to complete an important piece of Silver Bow Creek's 15-year transformation. "I want to do everything I can do for my community to enjoy Silver Bow." Vincent says that includes finishing a $30 million upgrade to Butte's wastewater treatment facility. Situated at the edge of town, Butte's sewer plant is undergoing a major makeover to reduce the amount of effluent.

During hot weather, Vincent says the creek suffers from algae blooms and a lack of oxygen. "This 2-mile section of the creek is still very bare of fish. That will change when the

upgrade is finished, resulting in cleaner water for fish, higher oxygen levels during summer, and an environmentally safe fluid waste stream."

The Silver Bow Creek remediation and restoration program has captured global recognition, and garnered national and international awards for environmental excellence. In 2005, the project received two awards from the National Association of Environmental Professionals. Also in 2005, the Green Organization, based in the United Kingdom, presented the project with its International Green Apple Environmental Award. To this day, the project continues to receive accolades of achievement from a variety of key stakeholders as the work progresses.

What's Next for Montana's Silver Bow Creek

When it is complete, over 23 miles of stream channel and floodplain will have been restored, and approximately 5 million cubic yards of tailings and soils laden with heavy metals removed. Under restoration activities funded by NRDP, aquatic and riparian resources are being restored and a variety of recreational opportunities provided, including a 22-mile greenway trail system. These combined remediation and restoration efforts will result in a restored floodplain ecosystem, slated for completion in 2014 or 2015.

Silver Bow Creek is now a unique fishery with rich nutrients that provide food year round," said fishery biologist Jason Lindstrom. "We have fishable numbers in low densities. We have come a long way, but we are not there yet. A lot of questions remain to be answered."

The most important thing to keep in mind may be Silver Bow's connection to the rest of the watershed. Montana's Clark Fork Coalition (CFC), founded in 1985, has spent 28 years pushing for comprehensive cleanup of the mining wastes of the Upper Clark Fork Watershed. Now that Silver Bow Creek restoration is wrapping up, and the Milltown Dam removal and restoration is complete, the CFC is focusing its energy on the next major cleanup: the Superfund removal of toxic metals from 43 miles of streambanks and floodplain along the Clark Fork downstream of Silver Bow Creek.

In all, over $300 million will be spent repairing this reach of the river, making it one of the most ambitious river restoration programs in the West. Anticipating this cleanup, the CFC purchased a 2,300-acre working cattle ranch, including 3 miles of the most polluted section of the Clark Fork floodplain near Deer Lodge.

Next year, after three years of analysis and design work, the CFC ranch is slated to be the first large private ranch to be cleaned up by Montana DEQ. The hope is to use this clean-up process to model how other private landowners can successfully engage in remediation without undue harm to their ranching operations. The goal is to restore the upper Clark Fork watershed to a true and lasting recovery at a landscape scale, with full ecological and economic benefits to local communities.

Best New Freshwater Rod

Scott Radian $795
Sometimes it's major improvements to rod blank technology that set a new rod apart. Other times, it's little functional switch-ups and cosmetic changes that woo consumers. In the case of the new Radian, it's both. Jim Bartschi and his crew at Scott Fly Rods have hit a home run.
The Radian uses Scott's X-Core design to create a wide, stable tube with thin, sensitive walls, along with ReAct technology to speed rod recovery time and reduce vibrations when the rod stops. Getting rid of these extra 'wobbles ' has been a goal of rod designers for a long time, and Scott seems to have brought us a step forward with a rod that casts with crispness and authority, but still has the feeling of connection you need in a trout tool. And while some might consider a rod handle 'cosmetic ' I'd have to disagree. Your grip, and the handle on the rod, can affect the way you cast, and a full wells grip reduces hand fatigue and is a better grip for a wider range of distances and conditions. Sage did it last year with the ONE series, and we may be seeing the beginning of a trend here with the full wells grip on the Scott Radian.
Another improvement is the REC wood-insert reel seat with an uplocking ring Bartschi calls 'self-indexing. ' What this means is that you don't have to spin the reel seat ring to find a proper alignment for the reel foot. It's always perfectly aligned in relation to the forward hood under the handle. It's a very small thing — and no one has ever failed to seat their reel properly due to lack of a self-indexing reel seat — but it shows that Scott is thinking about consumers, and considering just about every possible path to make things slicker and more convenient.
Other small details like Universal Snake guides with curved, 'radiused ' feet that fit slimmer on a rounded blank; alignment dots; and measuring wraps on the blank all add up to a rod that has forward-thinking design and higher performance in mind. The fly-fishing industry seems to agree, as the rod won Best Freshwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, and also overall Best in Show. The 4-piece rods are available in 4- to 8-weight models.

Best New Saltwater Line

Scientific Anglers Saltwater Grand Slam $85
Slackline casts are great when you're dry-fly fishing for trout, but in saltwater fishing, a slackline cast means that you'll have to retrieve line before you can come tight to the fly, and that lapse in effective movement often means the difference between catching fish and just seeing them. Florida Keys guide Capt. Bruce Chard is a master of coaching the short cast to the batter on the deck, but he's still watched too many bonefish and tarpon swim right past a stationary fly due to poor presentation. To combat this problem, he designed his Grand Slam line with an extremely short front taper that delivers excess energy to the fly so the leader turns over completely, and you can instantly swim the fly. The heavy head loads rods quickly for quick up-close casts, but a long rear taper (twice as long as most other saltwater lines) also helps you carry and control more line in the air for those opportunities where you actually get to make a hero cast.

Best New Saltwater Reel

Nautilus CCF-X2 $435 - $555
Low start-up inertia is easy when the drag is set low. The difficult thing is to have low inertia when the drag is set heavy. These lightweight, fully sealed reels have a sophisticated braking system that generates 20 pounds of drag with less than 1% start-up inertia. Here's how Nautilus made such a lightweight reel with heavyweight stopping power: The sealed drag has two friction surfaces — cork and carbon fiber — for double the surface area. Hybrid ceramic bearings and TPX bushings keep the weight extremely low yet perfectly align the axle to ensure that the spool tracks true at all settings. An oversize drag handle takes six full turns to go from zero to 20 pounds of drag. And the screw-off spool goes from left-hand to right-hand retrieve in minutes.

Best New Saltwater Rod

Sage Method $800 - [imo-slideshow gallery=145],050
although Sage isn't officially calling this a saltwater rod, we tested the new fast-action Method on the bonefish flats of South Andros Island and found it's the perfect tool for launching long, accurate casts in calm conditions where you can see the fish coming (and they can see you) from a long way off. And it's just as effectively when the wind is howling, and you need to make a powerful cast right into the teeth of a gale.
But since there are also 4- to 6-weights with wood insert real seats in the rod family, and nine different Spey and switch models, it's much more than a saltwater series — it's a high-performance casting tool for people who enjoy pushing the ceiling higher and higher. 'Sage's DNA is synonymous with fast-action rods, and through Konnetic Technology, we've taken seriously smooth, ultra-fast action performance to a new place entirely, ' said Sage chief rod designer, Jerry Siem. 'Our newest high-performance rods will make any caster better, but will also help experienced casters notch exceptional casts with regularity. '

Best New Switch Rod

G.Loomis PRO-4x $480 - $575
about a year ago, G.Loomis introduced its new PRO-4x rod series — rods that mimic the actions of the top-of-the-line NRX series because they share the same tapers, but they don't use the same expensive resin systems and carbon fibers as G.Loomis's best-performing rods. What you're left with is a series of well-designed rods that are fun to cast, and affordable enough that you can get more than one. Initially, the PRO-4x was a family of single-handed rods, but in 2014 it's expanding to include switch and two-handed models for everything from trout fishing in big rivers to true Spey casting for anadromous species. Like previous PRO-4x rods, the switch and two-handed models use some tapers from the more expensive NRX series, so if you like the 13-foot, 8/9-weight NRX, you're likely to appreciate the same rod in the PRO-4x series. But you're even more likely to enjoy the price difference. With a trout rod, a PRO-4x is about $280 cheaper, but when you get into switch and Spey rods, the savings run up to $500 and more, and you still get much of the 'feel ' of a performance rod.
Although the series is based on NRX tapers, there are some original gems in the family. The 10'6" 5-weight PRO-4x has no equivalent in the NRX series, yet our tester thought it was 'the perfect trout switch rod. While most switch rods are actually too long and too heavy for extended use with one hand, this one is a real multipurpose tool that you can Czech nymph with, hit a snap-T when the bank is tight behind you, or cast dry flies to rising trout. '

Best New Technology

Redington Super Dry Fly Waders $500
All breathable, waterproof fabrics in the outdoor industry are measured, evaluated, and compared by their moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR), also described as the 'breathability ' of the fabric. And while the issue of which company has the more breathable fabric has been hotly contested for decades, the issue of how that moisture vapor gets to the membrane in the first place has been largely ignored . . . until now. Redington is the first to use a product called 37.5 in a new line of waders built with the idea of more effectively creating moisture vapor (you can't pass liquid sweat through a breathable membrane) and moving that vapor toward the membrane. The new 37.5 technology uses tiny particles of activated carbon and volcanic sand — both are filled with microscopic cavities, creating an incredible evaporative surface area for their weight and volume. These activated particles are embedded to the wader lining using a polyurethane binder to 'stick ' the microporous particles to the wader interior. According to 37.5 inventor Dr. Gregory Haggquist of Cocona Natural Technologies, this lining draws moisture away from your body, and drives it through the membrane, leaving a comfortable microclimate next your skin of about 37 to 38 percent relative humidity (hence the name). The new Redington Super Dry Fly Waders ($500) with a front zip, Super Dry Waders ($400), and Super Dry Pants ($280) are all constructed using Redington's sonic-welded seams and will be available in 2014.

Best New Trout Line

RIO Perception $90
RIO's new flagship trout line has made a core change, both figuratively and literally. The Perception trout line has a new low-stretch core — the first of its kind for polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based fly lines. RIO won't say what its proprietary new core is made of, but it's not nylon monofilament or nylon multifilament, which are the traditional elastic materials for PVC fly line cores. If you've fished RIO's InTouch Deep lines, you've already felt the difference a low-stretch fly line can make to your contact with the fly, your sensitivity in detecting strikes, and your ability to set the hook when you feel the fish. Everything is more instant and efficient. But does it make a difference in your casting as well?
'Absolutely, ' said Simon Gawesworth, RIO marketing manager and a big part of the Perception design team. According to Gawesworth, a good caster can significantly stretch a standard fly line in the air by merely hauling the line, and this stretch is like a giant power drain when you're trying to move the fly efficiently. The Perception's low stretch — about 6% compared to about 30% in a standard fly line — lets you move the fly immediately instead of first stretching the line before you can move the fly.
We've tested the line extensively and found that it not only casts better, it mends more efficiently, picks up quickly and quietly, and gives you better control and more sensitivity for 'blind ' fishing subsurface with nymphs and streamers, where instant contact with the fish is the difference between hooking up, and missing a strike. In short, it's a more responsive line because the force you apply at your end of the rod is more immediately telegraphed through the line, and there is no 'dampening ' effect cause by line stretch.

Best New Trout Reel

Tibor Signature Series $685
Ted Juracsik set the saltwater world on its head when he reinvented the Tibor brand with his Signature Series. The reels are lighter than the original Tibor series and have a sealed, waterproof drag system that's easy to change from right- to left-hand retrieve. The esthetics and stopping power of the Signature Series quickly made it a staple for everything for bonefish and redfish, up to billfish and tarpon with the giant 11-12 size. In 2014 this saltwater stalwart is coming down in size to a 31/4"x23„8" trout-size reel that holds 200 yards of 20-pound-test gel-spun backing and a 6-weight line. The 5-6 Signature reel has a lighter foot to balance with smaller trout rods, and there's also a speciality color scheme for the lightweight of the family that allows you to choose a distinctive lime, aqua, crimson, or black drag system to match with the standard frame and spool colors that Tibor has offered for years.

Best New Wading Boot

Simms G4 Boa Boot $240
You've probably seen people jogging the streets barefoot, or maybe read the book Born to Run, which takes a close look at the podiatric health of barefoot cultures. The barefoot concept embraces the philosophy that you'll perform better if you allow your foot to do its work unencumbered. While you can't actually wade a river barefoot, the premise behind the G4 Boa Boot is that your foot is a complex appendage with tiny bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves all working to keep you balanced and moving. If you eliminate feedback coming from the river bottom, you hinder your own ability for proprioception — the ability to sense the orientation and movement of the body and its parts. According to Brandon Hill of Simms, the key to the new boot is the sculpted TPU retention plate in the boot platform that allows the outsole to articulate so you can feel your way along the river bottom better, and use your foot the way it was designed.

Best Women's Waders

Orvis Silver Sonic Convertible-Top Waders $260
Comfortable and easy to move in, these convertibles give you options in warm weather. SonicSeam Technology ensures there are no bulky seams to rub in awkward places, and a flip-out interior pocket offers a secure place for valuables. The fabric is light, and packs down smaller than some competitors — important for ladies who travel. Orvis nailed the fit here — these are the best-fitting waders I've tried, and together with the convertible top, made these my favorite of all the women's waders I tested this year.

Best Fiberglass Rod

Orvis Superfine Glass $400
After a several-decade hiatus from fiberglass, Orvis has come back into the glass game. Rod designer Shawn Combs at Orvis started the process several years ago. After a long period of testing, tweaking, and tuning, Orvis has finally released the Superfine Glass, rolled and assembled at the Orvis rod shop in Manchester, Vermont, and priced under $400. There is no excuse for any serious glass geek not to at least give these rods a try. I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon casting small foam hoppers to hungry brown trout in Wisconsin's Driftless Area using a 7' Superfine Glass. The little 3-weight handled the hopper without issue and rolled out accurate casts up to 40 feet without a problem. There is also a 7'6" 4-weight, and an 8' 5-weight in the series.

Green Award

Fishpond Black Canyon $180
Fishpond has introduced 14 new fishing packs and vests for 2014 built with a strong, durable nylon material produced from recycled commercial fishing nets. Not only is Fishpond helping remove these old nets from the ocean and beaches by creating a value for them, but the high-tech recycling process uses 27% fewer natural resources and reduces greenhouse emissions by 28% compared to using virgin nylon.
One of the new products using recycled materials is the Black Canyon backpack. With an adjustable external frame, offset air mesh back, and padded, contoured shoulder straps, it helps carry heavy loads and keeps you cool while hiking into remote fishing destinations. The modular design lets it dock with many of the Fishpond's chest/lumbar packs, and two zip-out rod tube holders comfortably carry fly rods. The large main backpack compartment carries plenty of gear while three smaller pockets offer quick access to necessities.

Green Award

Simms DownUnder Merino Ziptop & Bottom $100-$120
These merino wool base layers aren't just manufactured in the U.S., the wool is raised on Montana ranches, and washed, spun into yarn, and woven into fabric, all without leaving the state. The wool is never bleached — an environmentally destructive process that can also remove the natural lanolins that help make Merino wool soft and naturally odor resistant. Because of the extraordinarily small diameter of the Merino fibers, this wool doesn't itch, and helps wick moisture away from the skin so you feel dry and comfortable. The garments are sewn in the Simms Bozeman factory using a flatlock stitch so they are both comfortable and stretchy enough to wear as a base layer.

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