Usually the flurry of talk about Willow Creek reservoir’s fishery this time of year centers around sharing stories of weekend family outings and catching big rainbow trout in Montana’s great outdoors. So, the recent run of stories about the complete draining of the reservoir, which will lead to an equally complete loss of its trout and tiger muskie populations, as well as all other aquatic life, has shocked many of us who consider the reservoir a valuable outdoor community resource, especially for families and anglers from Augusta, Great Falls and Helena (see articles in Helena IR, July 24, 25, 2019).
It’s been disappointing to learn that the plans to completely drain the reservoir for necessary dam repairs have been in the works for some time. However, the major parties involved, the Bureau of Reclamation and Greenfield Irrigation District, provided little opportunity for public engagement. It even appears like Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) fisheries division only learned about the dam repairs and water drawdown at the eleventh hour. At that point, it was too late to even consider the option of using temporary dam structures to keep some water in the reservoir, allowing many of the fish to survive while also allowing the main dam to be fixed under dry conditions. FWP even offered to help pay for that fish-saving option. It’s unfortunate the department wasn’t provided the opportunity to help coordinate and fund that plan earlier.
As a result, FWP is now lifting all fishing regulations at Willow Creek so that anglers have the opportunity for unlimited catch and harvest before the fish meet the fate of being stranded in an empty reservoir later this August. While that’s a decent last-ditch effort to take advantage of the public fishery resource, it shouldn’t be the end of how we resolve this situation.
Once the work is done on the dam and Willow Creek reservoir is refilled, it will take years for the fishery to return. And that won’t happen by chance. All involved parties should begin planning together to bring back this fishery and recreational resources as quickly as possible. That plan should include enhancing aquatic habitat while the reservoir is drained, as well as considering improving public access sites. Once there’s water back in the reservoir, FWP should restock it. Specifically, using the older, larger rainbow trout raised at hatcheries for places like Canyon Ferry will help the Willow Creek fishery rebound faster than using eggs or fry. In the meantime, there should be mitigation for the loss of this resource within the larger Sun River watershed. Whether or not completely lowering the reservoir will impact the Sun with abnormal flows, changes in water temperature, or additional sediment, the multi-year loss of the Willow Creek fishery ought to be compensated with some efforts to enhance the river’s future fishery and recreational resource. Refilling the reservoir is also likely to have negative impacts on Sun River flows. Figuring out ways to minimize those impacts or mitigation against them will be essential. That might even include improvements to Greenfield Irrigation District infrastructure, such as ditch and headgate work, that could benefit water users and fish.
In the short-term, what’s happening at Willow Creek is a significant loss of aquatic life and public recreational opportunity. With a little effort, coordination, and funding, it can be a long-term gain for both of those, as well as for the people who depend on Willow Creek water.
Brian Neilsen of Great Falls represents Missouri River Flyfishers, and Will Trimbath of Helena represents the Pat Barnes chapter of Trout Unlimited.