MISSOULA — The city unveiled plans on Wednesday, January 10, 2024, to embark on a roughly $2.5 million project to address erosion created by Clark Fork River users and to build established access points to the water's edge at several downtown locations.
The project has been in the works since 2014 and looks to preserve water quality and wildlife habitat while also acknowledging the river's popularity as a summer recreation site.
“What we're really talking about is building an intuitive system of downtown river access points to not only improve recreational use but also to protect the resources we really value in the Clark Fork River,” said Morgan Valliant, associate director of ecosystem services with the city.
Valliant said he became concerned about certain patterns of river use back in 2012 when erosion intensified as a result of user-created trails. A study conducted several years later found how intense summer use of the river actually was.
Conducted in 2018, the study identified more than 2,600 floaters in the river at the Madison Street Bridge, amounting to roughly 18,000 floaters each season. At peak use, nearly 60 people floated under the bridge each hour and 66% of them were in single-person flotation devices.
Over the years, the pace of erosion has begun to threaten a range of public infrastructure including trails, utilities and bridge abutments. While other stretches of the river's urban flow face equal erosion, the project's first phase focuses only on areas between the Madison Street Bridge and Caras Park.
“Any time a river flows through an urban area, it's usually highly confined, developed and impacted,” Valliant said. “Being a river community, we value those riparian areas that run through town, no matter how small they are, so we can provide good wildlife habitat, water quality and also those recreational opportunities.”
The river's challenges mark a turnaround from just three decades ago when the Clark Fork was rarely used for water recreation. The river was dirty and, decades earlier, was used as a dump, its banks shored up with automobiles — still evident at several locations.
More recently, however, Missoula has “rediscovered” the river. Removal of the Milltown Dam helped, and now the Clark Fork has become a community prize. Development that once turned its back on the river now faces the attraction, and parks along the riverbank have grown increasingly popular.
“Creating a river access system around someone that can just get up and get out wherever they want is kind of nontraditional,” said Valliant. “We think of boat ramps and people trying to get large trailers into the river to launch rafts. That's not what we see. We see people hanging out on the beach, and we see people floating through on tubes and stand-up paddle boards.”
As it stands, roughly 90 unauthorized access points currently exist, accounting for 630 linear feet of bank erosion. To improve access and stem the pace of erosion, the plans look to establish a number of dedicated sites and restore other unauthorized sites to their natural condition.
Among them, the plans will create two access points on the north bank, with stairs feeding the popular swimming beach under the Madison Street Bridge. At Caras Park, plans call for two ADA access ramps, tiered seating and rock steps to encourage surfers to use the location and forgo illegal trails.
“The idea of this is to really create and improve a sustainable public access to and from the river for people of all backgrounds and abilities,” said Nathan McLeod, the city's senior landscape architect. “The primary goal is protect water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, scenic views, and provide climate resiliency.”
But the bulk of the work will take place along the south bank, where plans call for the restoration of roughly 17 unnatural access points while creating two new hardened access sites. The first will include steps near Toole Park to access a low-water beach while the other will include a dedicated take-out spot under Beartracks Bridge.
The Boone & Crockett Club is expected to offer an easement for the later, McLeod said.
“This has some of the most severe erosion of any place surveyed. It's likely to threaten the Milwaukee Trail during the next large storm event,” he said. “This is also the closest you can drive to the river anywhere in downtown Missoula. It's also an area where a lot of the private tubing shuttle companies are taking out.”
The project's anticipated budget stands at roughly $2.6 million, including $300,000 for final engineering, $785,000 for construction and river restoration, $1.5 million for Caras Park improvements, and $79,000 for construction administration.
Funding would include $100,000 from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and $1.2 million from the Economic Development Administration. It also includes $150,000 from the Missoula Downtown Partnership and up to $1 million from the Open Space Bond, which will require city and county approval.
“This is slightly higher than what our anticipated costs are. It's nice to have a little wiggle room knowing that costs aren't set from that budget,” McLeod said. “Erosion severity was a primary factor in why we chose certain sites to restore.”