February 22, 2008

Powerhouse Bricks
Powerhouse bricks

For February’s CFRTAC commentary for Montana Public Radio, Michael Kustudia explores the changes in societal values about rivers and the bittersweet side of removing the Milltown Dam’s powerhouse. Read it here (PDF) or after the jump.

Montana Public Radio Commentary
Michael Kustudia / Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee
February 21, 2008

In 1904 John McCormick sold his river bottom ranch at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers to a land company owned by Montana’s U.S Senator, William A. Clark. As those familiar with their history know, Clark was the Montana-made, industrial titan – a veritable Copper King– and a dubious politician. Clark came to Montana during its gold boom in the 1860s and stayed to prove himself a savvy, aggressive and accomplished entrepreneur, accumulating a vast fortune from Montana’s natural wealth, much of which was whisked away out of state.

At the confluence of the two rivers, Clark saw an opportunity to dam the flow and create electricity for local mills and the bustling neighbor downstream, the city of Missoula. Just a few short years later, on January 9 1908, the dam and powerhouse produced its first electric power. “Electricity is a wonderful thing,” said A.H. Wethey, Clark’s agent at the dedication of the Milltown powerhouse. He added, “wherever power plants are introduced there seems to be no limit to the wonderful possibilities that can be accomplished with this great power.”

Indeed a century ago, in those much more utilitarian times, damming the two rivers was nearly an act of common sense. Electricity at that time was still something relatively new, worthy of veneration, and increasingly in demand. Clark’s dam literally electrified region and even powered a streetcar from Bonner to Missoula. The dam and its power were widely celebrated; while many photos were taken of the dam’s construction, not one shows the undammed confluence. Did anyone stop to mourn the loss of two free flowing rivers? Hard to say, but my guess is, not likely.

Flash forward a century later and the powerhouse is now gone. Last week, I went the dam site with representatives of Missoula County to sort through a pile of broken brick for possible use in an interpretive display. On behalf of the Milltown Superfund Redevelopment Working Group, the powerhouse has been salvaged to the extent possible and its items set aside for future interpretive use.

But as we drove up, I felt a sharp sense of bewilderment, maybe some sort of cognitive dissonance as I looked at the downstream face of the old powerhouse site; all starkly gone now save for the remaining concrete headwall. Gone are the familiar, pleasing red brick face and the iconic long arched windows. In my work with CFRTAC, the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee, I had looked upon the powerhouse innumerable times before, so much so that it had become a mental fixture. And now it was just a phantom.

In my mind it’s clear why the dam and powerhouse has to be removed. Removing the hydraulic head of the reservoir – that is to say the weight of water that drives contaminants into groundwater below – is central to reclaiming the Milltown aquifer. And by today’s standards, the dam produced a negligible amount of energy and it was in need of costly safety upgrades; moreover it was very bad for Montana’s wild fisheries. Pulling this stopper on the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers will open up some 6000 square miles of spawning habitat for fish and that alone is a cause for celebration.

Still, this thing I wanted to see happen for so long, struck me as shockingly sad in its reality. It’s a poignant process to witness this transformation of the landscape, this making and un-making of history. It took just a century from the time the first Euro-American passed through the confluence for the two rivers to be fully contained, industrialized and put to work. The rise of this nation as a cultural, economic and military power was fueled significantly by natural resources from the West and the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers played their part only at great consequence.

But in the century since the rivers were dammed, we’ve moved from celebrating hydroelectric production to recognizing the value of clean aquifers and free flowing rivers. Behind this shift is a fundamental change in the way people value landscapes and rivers. The old economy rooted in unbridled resource extraction is giving way to a newer one based on restoration and quality of life. It’s not an easy transition, to be sure, but projects like the Clark Fork cleanup exemplify Montana’s effort to come to grips with its industrial heritage. As we look to future, we need to pause and honor the past, and recognize this moment, however desirable, has a bittersweet edge nonetheless.

For current photos of the Milltown site and a link to the hot off the press Dam News 2008, the illustrated guide to the Milltown Superfund cleanup, visit our website at cfrtac.org. The website also has links to the other big news of late – that being the recent legal settlements between BP-ARCO, the state and feds that will clear the way for Superfund cleanup and restoration work to begin in the upper Clark Fork River. Stay tuned for more about that next time.

This is Michael Kustudia for CFRTAC. Thanks for listening and thinking about the river.

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