Rattlesnake Creek dam removal, restoration will be national model

Joe Toth confers with Dave Cole and Trenton Kriz about measurements of a large wood pile on Rattlesnake Creek in September. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

On the first Friday of October, Aissa Wise looked at the weekend weather forecast and grimaced at the prediction of snow. As the Stream Team coordinator for the Watershed Education Network, she’d struggled to rally enough volunteers to collect data on Rattlesnake Creek the following day.

Time was getting short, and snow could put the Stream Team further behind. They needed to collect all the data before the creek freezes this year and before the dam is taken out next year.

So Wise held out, hoping the weather wouldn’t be as bad as forecast.

“One of the biggest things is synchronizing everybody’s schedules,” Wise said. “There are so many different kinds of people – students, families, retired people – and everyone has such a different schedule. I can email people all day, but half the time, I don’t get responses. Just so many roadblocks on the scheduling side of things.”

Anticipation of the removal of the Rattlesnake dam has attracted a lot of local attention. Many neighbors want to help out in some way and be part of history, said Watershed Education Network executive director Deb Fassnacht.

“Granted, this is a small dam that’s had the headgate opened, and we’re not expecting a lot of change,” Fassnacht said. “But the idea of being part of this creek improvement and to be actively participating with your waders on, walking the stream and taking measurements, is wonderful.” 

For the past month, volunteers with the Missoula-based Watershed Education Network and Trout Unlimited have been splashing through Rattlesnake Creek to quantify its condition before the dam is removed. They’re establishing a baseline against which the next decade of change will be measured.

Along with the simpler task of collecting water samples, volunteers have been counting pebbles, capturing insects and measuring the size and amount of large wood pieces in the stream, since logs and woodpiles create good habitat for trout. Much like when the Milltown Dam was removed, taking out Rattlesnake dam may allow more woody debris to collect downstream.

Wise has done her best to put people in waders, and it’s not gone unnoticed. 

The Watershed Education Network’s activities have caught attention of the University of California-Davis, which has decided to use Rattlesnake Creek as a model for future citizen-science projects throughout the West.

Scientists or technicians usually collect this kind of information. But Fassnacht knew she could probably expand her organization’s citizen-science training to qualify volunteers to do it. But it would take a little more than the basic training that WEN has been giving to local middle-school students for the past 23 years.

So last year, Fassnacht applied for a grant from the Resources Legacy Foundation’s Open Rivers Fund. That’s when all the attention started.

The Resources Legacy Foundation created the Open Rivers Fund to support community efforts to remove some of the two million dams and restore rivers across the West. 

Several dams are obsolete, and 70% will be past their 50-year life spans by 2025, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. So the Foundation wants to help communities remove those that are useless and restore their streams.

To help with that, the Foundation asked the UC-Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science to develop a manual to help people who step forward to lead community restoration efforts. 

Organizations have recruited citizen-scientists for a long time, but the practice has really taken off in the past decade as digital technology makes it easier for regular people to gather data. The Center was created in response to this trend to help scientists and organizations learn how to employ the new tools and manpower, said Center executive director Ryan Meyer.

Meyer and colleague Heidi Ballard started researching all the steps needed for dam removal only to find – thanks to Fassnacht’s grant application – that Missoula’s process was already underway. 

“(Resource Legacy Foundation) said ‘Let’s use Missoula, Montana, Rattlesnake Creek, the dam removal and stream restoration as a template for what works and what we need to be sharing with other communities as they head down the road of dam removal,’ ” Fassnacht said.

Meyer and Ballard have spent a year talking to Fassnacht and Wise about how they recruited and kept volunteers and what were the best ways to teach volunteers to collect data. They also visited Missoula in July to see the process in action.

“Without Missoula, we would have had to start at an earlier stage in a community where there wasn’t as much going on,” Meyer said. “We would have been building it as we fly it. But these guys were already flying it.”

Meyer said the Missoula case is kind of special, because it has several aspects that create a base of volunteers: a dam on a creek close to town, a college with an environmental focus, and an engaged citizenry. But he said the situation could be replicated in other towns if community leaders can help people care about a place and then connect their volunteer work to that.

Even with an engaged community, Wise knows that the weather doesn’t always cooperate and volunteers are never easy to wrangle. But volunteers will stick with it if they know what they’re doing is important and if their instructions are as clear as possible so they don’t get frustrated. That also means the data they collect will be more reliable.

“And just knowing the story,” Wise said. “I try to tell everybody why we’re doing it and who is giving us these jobs. I think it’s important for volunteers to understand the whole picture, rather than just going out and collecting data and having no idea where it’s going and who it’s for.”

Now, Wise tells volunteers that their work can help not only Rattlesnake Creek but communities throughout the West. 

The Watershed Education Network is still recruiting citizen scientists. For information, call 541-8297 or email water@montanawatershed.org.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.