Clarks Fork River aid

FWP aids in project on the Clarks Fork River to control flooding, protect fish
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Story And Photos By Jaci Webb
Thursday, November 18, 2021
FWP lead fish technician Ben Bailey, far right, helps a crew lay down mesh on the newly sculpted bank of the Clarks Fork River near Silesia to help control flooding.

FWP lead fish technician Ben Bailey, far right, helps a crew lay down mesh on the newly sculpted bank of the Clarks Fork River near Silesia to help control flooding.

Landowner Mark Griffith is pleased with the bank work near his property along the Clarks Fork River. He hopes the project will encourage others to mitigate flooding using a soft bank approach that is better for fish and water quality.

Landowner Mark Griffith is pleased with the bank work near his property along the Clarks Fork River. He hopes the project will encourage others to mitigate flooding using a soft bank approach that is better for fish and water quality.

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Anyone who lives near a river understands the old adage, “A river is going to do what river is going to do.”

But flooding and riverbank erosion can cause problems for everyone, especially landowners. Decades ago, a quick fix was dumping old car parts into the bank to stabilize the soil. The car parts gave way to a safer and more aesthetic repair – boulders. Rocks help keep the riverbank from giving way during high water in the spring. But rocks can contribute to an increase in water temperature, putting fish at risk. This is occurring more often due to climate change. Another issue with the rocks is that they make for an ugly, unnatural riverbank, and they don’t help filter out minerals and other substances from draining into the river.

Enter Ben Bailey, a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks lead fish technician.

Bailey has taken the lead on a project on the Clarks Fork River south of Laurel near Silesia.

The exciting thing about the riverbank stabilization project is that it is a combined effort between multiple state, federal, and local agencies, and the property owner Mark Griffith. In fact, Griffith is so excited about the project, he has agreed to allow others to come view the work with hopes that other landowners will use a similar, natural approach to mitigating riverbank erosion.

“First and foremost, the river was doing damage to the riverbank. We had lost 30 to 40 feet of bank in just one year. The river was undercutting the bank. That was the genesis for the project,” Griffith said.

At about the same time, Griffith was struggling with the loss of the riverbank along his property, Bailey was looking for a section of river to try out a new riverbank stabilization plan. The idea is to use natural materials, including willows and other native plants, to stabilize the bank. This allows filtration of runoff to keep the river flowing cleaner and it can be done with less expense than stabilizing the bank with large rocks.

“There are already elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphates in the Clarks Fork,” Bailey said. “Having plants here will take up some of the nutrients before they get into the water.”

Bailey said he had been toying with the idea of putting in the natural bank stabilization for several years, but looking for just the right spot to do it that would allow the public to view the results. Similar projects are done in more remote areas that don’t provide access.

Many agencies have partnered on this project with the Army Corps of Engineers having jurisdiction. The Army Corps had to approve the riverbank stabilization before work could get started this fall.

“The neat thing about this project is it’s a pilot project in the watershed,” said engineer Chad Raisland, of Pioneer Technical Services in Billings. “We want to see more of these in the valley.”

With the help of the Carbon County Conservation District, Bailey secured a $20,000 grant from Montana Watershed Coordination Council to help fund the project, which will cost about $80,000. The landowner will pay for the rest of the cost.

On a sunny November day, a team of about 12 people from several different agencies worked to lay mesh netting over the bank, newly sculpted by Joliet contractor Jason Stene of JNR Excavating Service. A team of FWP biologists and fish technicians laid the mesh over a 400-foot section of the bank and then laid down cut willows that extend over the water.

“It’s been enlightening to me how passionate these people are about what they do,” Griffith said. “Ben is very knowledgeable and in tune with these things.”

Later in the week, the plan was to plant hundreds of willows as they are fast growing native plants. The mesh fabric will last about five years, which should give the plants enough time to take hold and stabilize the bank naturally. Griffith plans to add wild rose bushes and sunflowers to the mix.

“I have spent thousands of dollars buying trees and shrubs to plant along the bank. We’re hoping to turn it into a garden with crab apple trees and bushes,” Griffith said.

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