Silver Bow Creek has been called many names over the years: Copper Creek and Shit Creek, to list a couple. But now, after a lot of time and millions of dollars, the stream, which is a part of the Butte Superfund site, is finally up for a change in status. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is currently working on reclassifying the stream as a normal, life-supporting water body.
If the reclassification goes through, it will serve as a small triumph for all agencies involved in the remediation of the country’s largest Superfund site.
Silver Bow Creek was one of the main culprits behind the widespread contamination in Butte. Before any remediation started, it carried toxic tailings from mining activities to the Clark Fork River.
“It was an absolute dead zone, period,” says DEQ remediation project officer Joel Chavez, who has been working on Silver Bow Creek since 1998. “Mine tailings of various blues, greens, yellows. No bugs at all, no fish, no plant life.”
Now, the creek supports various types of trout, including the elusive Montana native Westslope cutthroat. The shores are a natural vegetated green, and birds and wildlife no longer keep their distance.
“It means that kids can catch fish in there for the first time in 100 years,” Chavez says. “The public is getting their stream back.”
Silver Bow Creek’s current classification status is “I”, which basically means it has no status.
“It’s a classification that they stuck things in when they didn’t know what they were,” says DEQ Water Quality Standards Fish Specialist Roderick McNeil, who is heading up the reclassification project.
The DEQ is hoping to reclassify Silver Bow to either C-1 status, which means it can support aquatic life and is safe for recreation, or B-1 status, which means it is suitable for drinking water after conventional water treatment.
The significance of the reclassification goes beyond a simple change in title—it brings a level of protection. A water body classified as B-1, for example, is required to be monitored and maintained at a water quality level clean enough to use for drinking water.
McNeil expects to have the paperwork done and open for public review early in the new year. The Clark Fork Coalition is one group planning on advocating for the change.
“Silver Bow Creek has endured a lot of abuse,” Clark Fork Coalition Science Director Chris Brick says. “After everything that has been invested in this stream, why shouldn’t we then make sure it is re-classified in the most protected way possible?”