State hails recovery of fishery at Silver Bow Creek Superfund Site

Kennedy Elementary 6th Graders Saxon Walton and Desaray Blunt (back row from left) and Kelliann Neary, Nadine McDaniel, Mackenzie Coe and Alexis Miller (front row from left) stand by Silver Bow Creek Monday

State officials are celebrating a milestone in the restoration of a small creek near Butte. For 100 years, Silver Bow Creek was so polluted with mining waste it was considered a dead zone for fish and wildlife. A $120 million restoration effort began on the stream in 1999.

The fish are finally coming back.

6th Graders from Butte’s Kennedy Elementary School got to take an afternoon field trip to the banks of Silver Bow Creek for a big announcement from the Governor. Teacher Terri Daily’s class has been learning about Superfund sites for the last month.

These kids know their Silver Bow Creek history.

“Heavy metals or mining got into the river and polluted it. So what they did is cleaned it up and reopened it,” MacKenzie Coe said, summing it up.

That’s pretty concise and it’s largely due to one watershed moment. Severe spring flooding in 1908 washed Butte mine tailings into the stream and surrounding flood plain. Things like copper, arsenic, mercury–just annihilated aquatic life, plants and animals.

Bud Lilly (right) with Governor Brian Schweitzer

“I started coming to Butte Montana in 1929, as a little boy, this creek was just a conduit for contamination,” said legendary fly fisherman Bud Lilly—the man known for pioneering the catch and release fishing ethic and founding Montana’s Trout Unlimited.

“Did you ever think you’d catch a fish in here?” I asked Lilly.

“I didn’t think you could put your foot in, it would rot off,” Lilly replied, chuckling.

Silver Bow Creek runs into the Clark Fork River. The contaminants from that 1908 flood washed all the way down to a dam in Milltown. Decades later it led the EPA to declare the entire area the biggest Superfund site in the country.

All fed by this quaint little brook.

The corporate descendent of the old Butte mines, ARCO, settled with the state in the 90s to pay for the entire cleanup. The Silver Bow project has been massive—a feat of engineering. In order to do this kind of cleanup you literally have to reroute the entire stream. You dig out all the pollutants from the old bed and the flood plain, restore that, then move the creek back over.

The project is about 80 percent complete and life is finding its way into Silver Bow Creek again–animals and plants

Wearing tan chest-waders—Governor Brian Schweitzer seemed to be casting for both.

“And I got hung up on some weeds, which almost always–you see that weed? That’s what happens with a wooley bugger.”

Schweitzer came to the creek with Bud Lilly and representatives from several state agencies to announce an official comeback for the fishery here. It’s a low-density fish population of rainbow, brook and westslope cutthroat trout.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is putting in special fishing regulations for the creek—for the first time. They require anglers put back the cutthroat they catch. That’s fine with Bud Lilly, he’s all about this preservation stuff.

“That creek is more valuable than copper and gold because it’s clean, clear water, it’s feeding our main rivers,” he said.

“This will be a better river next year than it was this year and it’s a better river this year than it’s been for the last 100 years,” said Schweitzer, adding this will continue for generations. And the next generation in Terri Daily’s 6th grade class seemed at least a little excited to cast a line themselves.