MISSOULA — Aided by a $1.2 million grant, Trout Unlimited and Missoula County will tackle another summer of restoration work within the Ninemile watershed, where they continue to chip away at damage left by past mining activity.
Joined by the Lolo National Forest, Trout Unlimited has led the seven-year restoration effort to reclaim the watershed, stretching from the Ninemile mainstem up to the tributaries that provide vital habitat for spawning fish and other aquatic species.
“We’re looking forward to getting started on it,” said Paul Parsons, the Middle Clark Fork restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “It will start downstream from the work we completed last summer. Hopefully, we’ll start work in June.”
Kylie Paul, the natural resources specialist for Missoula County, said the Ninemile was heavily impacted by placer mining. The work left some stream channels confined or straightened, resulting in the complete loss of the historic floodplain.
The placer piles and dredge ponds cover more than six miles of floodplain along Ninemile Creek and inhibit natural functions. The damage has led to faster flood runoff, decreased natural water storage and erosion.
But in 2004, Trout Unlimited, Missoula County and the Lolo National Forest launched a campaign to reclaim the abandoned mining sites and restore the landscape to a more natural condition.
The work picked up in 2014 and has been playing out every summer since. For every mile of restoration, around one-acre feet of additional groundwater now enters Ninemile Creek each day at base flow.
The work also has reduced the sediment load by 860 tons a year.
“It’s remarkable to go from a place that’s been affected and see how deep these scours were and how weird it really looked, and very unnatural,” Paul recently said. “To then see what’s been done, even in a year or two, it looks very natural.”
Since work began, more than 100 acres of floodplain and nearly three miles of stream have been restored. Six tributary creeks have been reconnected to the mainstem of Ninemile Creek and nearly 250,000 cubic yards of placer mine rock have been removed or graded.
Parsons said the next two phases of the project will include regrading nearly 250,000 cubic yards of placer piles to create a naturally functioning floodplain.
“This summer, we plan to start another 6,500 feet of channel construction,” Parsons said. “We’ll remove and regrade historic placer piles left there from the dredging operation that occurred in the ’40s and ’50s.”
When work starts in June, Parsons said more than a mile of creek channel will be constructed or modified, and the wetlands will be built along the length of the project. Planting native vegetation will also improve habitat and reduce sedimentation.
“We’ll begin to build wetlands. It’s a rather large construction ops and will take a few years, but it will restore this damaged landscape.”
Last year, a mining company submitted a proposal to explore for gold in the Little McCormick and Kennedy creek drainages, which lie with the restoration area. However, the proposal was withdrawn after public pushback.