During a planning meeting in Columbia Falls Wednesday, people who live near the Flathead River said they’re concerned about climate change, user impacts and nearby railroad activity,
Two federal agencies are tasked with updating management of the Flathead’s three forks under the Wild and Scenic River Act: The U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. They say that despite the river’s unusually high water quality, threats remain.
Craig Kendall, a watershed and fisheries manager with the U.S. Forest Service, says recent data show trends of declining snowpack, earlier spring runoff, lower stream flows and warmer water temperature.
"I think climate change is by far the biggest threat to these river systems," Kendall says.
Another potential threat, Kendall says, are railcars that transport oil and other hazardous materials along the Flathead’s Middle Fork.
About 70 people came to a water quality-focused planning session in Columbia Falls Wednesday night. Some are concerned that monitoring by Glacier National Park, the Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey has dropped off in recent years, which could create a data gap in the future. Others want more information about how dust abatement and de-icers on roads affect water quality; and for popular recreation sites to be monitored for fecal coliform. Others voiced frustration that data and information is difficult to access.
Managers with the Forest Service and Glacier National Park will fold that input into a new draft management plan, which will describe the current status of the river, outline goals and desired conditions, set user capacity and create a monitoring plan for the next 15 to 20 years. Drafting it will take about three years.
Chris Downs, a fisheries manager with Glacier National Park, says that while the river is beginning to see the effects of a warming climate, other indicators, like sediments, nutrients and metals, are all holding steady at acceptable levels.
"The consistent theme in all this stuff is that no matter what the metric we're looking at, things aren’t perfect, but they look pretty good. They don’t sound a whole lot different than they did when these three rivers were designated," Downs says.
In the past, land development, timber harvest, and mining posed potential hazards for the river. But most of the land lining the Flathead’s three forks is now federally protected, and treaties with Canada bar future mining development upstream.
The next planning meeting on June 20 will focus on wildlife.