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Rains turn Bitterroot into the Big Muddy

The Big Murky

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It’s black, it’s dirty, it’s muddy. It’s the Bitterroot River, in some places as much mud as water, the result of last week’s flash floods.

The storms that peppered the southern Bitterroot Valley last week brought heavy rainfall to the same drainages that burned last summer. The result: mud flows running like liquid chocolate are finding their way to the river and irrigation ditches and are creating hassles for fish, fishermen and irrigators.

Chris Clancy, a fisheries biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says he’s unsure how the mud, ash and sediment will affect fish in the long term. His colleagues had planned to electroshock the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, where fire damage was heaviest, to see how many fish turn up.

“I don’t think it’s going to have a significant impact to fish down in the main river. It has to get pretty darn soupy to kill fish.” As of Sunday afternoon, when the results of Saturday night’s flooding were most evident, it was pretty darn soupy indeed. One could scoop up handfuls of dark brown mud lying inches thick on the river bottom as far north as Darby.

Clancy says he won’t have a good feel for how the heavy mud deposits are affecting fish and the insects they feed on until the electroshocking is complete.

Mark Bachik, owner of Blackbird’s Fly Shop in Victor, is already getting a good feel for how the flooding has affected his business. “I can tell you it isn’t pretty,” Backik says. Business is down more than 50 percent at Blackbird’s, and Bachik fears the worst is yet to come. The shuttle driver for Blackbird’s fishing clients drove one shuttle last Sunday. Normally he shuttles between 25 and 30 cars a day.

For farmers, the murky water will also take a toll on irrigation pumps and sprinkler heads not designed to handle fine material like ash. Aaron Hawkinson, who owns Valley Irrigation in Hamilton, spent two hours repairing 10 heavily clogged sprinklers recently. He’s been fielding calls from people wondering if the ash will ruin their pumps. “I can’t help but think that it will. It’s a problem. It’s a big problem as far as I’m concerned.”

As for Bachik, he notes the biblical implications. “We might be in the middle of a seven-year plague,” he says. “First we had fire, then flooding.

What’s it going to be next, locusts?”

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