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Volunteers Come Together After Hebgen Dam Malfunction

Thursday, December 09, 2021

The big news is, on the early hours of November 30th, the Hebgen Dam, which controls the flow for the Madison River had a malfunction and reduced flows immediately from about 650 CFS to about 150 CFS. No one knew about this till the following morning. There was a lot of confusion at the beginning.

Montana Fish and Wildlife ok’d volunteers to go out and help rescue stranded trout in side channels, then reversed their decision an hour later because of worries about flows coming back up quickly, risking safety and damaging exposed brown trout spawning grounds. After some clarity from Northwestern Energy who operates the dam, it was deemed safe for volunteers to help out the following day. Many posts were made to social media and many phone calls were exchanged between concerned anglers. Over 100 volunteers showed up in Ennis early the morning and many more on the upper half of the river. Most volunteers concentrated on the area from the dam to $3 bridge.

hebgen dam malfunction cars

Myself and a buddy drove up the entire river. We passed many vehicles parked along the highway and saw many people walking the banks with nets and five gallon buckets. I had called a family friend earlier in the morning and received permission to access the river on his property, thinking that maybe we could get access to water that others may not reach without a very long walk. We wadered up and headed upstream. The water was definitely much lower than average winter time flows, but no recently dried up channels or many stranded trout were found. After a while we wandered back to the truck and headed back down the river.

From seeing the pictures of the river below the dam the previous evening, I would have thought the famed Madison had seen the end of times. There were pictures of dead fish on dry river channels. The main channel was as low as I have ever seen it. Places that always held water were dried up. My heart sank when viewing those pictures.

After seeing the river with my own eyes and accessing the situation, here is my opinion of the status of the river. The two miles of water between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake took the majority of damage, with the highest area with a fish kill. Quake Lake seemed to buffer the sudden drop of water and the rest of the 40 miles of river downstream seemed mostly unscathed. In my opinion, Quake Lake helped the river by not allowing flows to drop as dramatically and quickly as they did upstream, allowing the river inhabitants to escape to the deeper waters in plenty of time.

What long term effects will this have on the river?

From reading the articles and interviews with Montana Fish and Wildlife, we may not know the answers for quite some time. I believe that the area between Quake Lake and Hebgen Dam was greatly affected, but that is an area that I don’t frequent often. I would like to think that the trout downstream of Quake Lake were unaffected and the spawning redds were just fine. I know that is wishful thinking, but from someone who witnessed the effects first hand, I don’t feel that there was a massive fish kill below Quake Lake, luckily. Time will tell, and I’ll let you know any additional information as it becomes available.

Many thanks to all that quickly came to together to lend a hand when needed. Montana FWP was expecting 15-20 volunteers, and there were many more who showed up to help. You can find out more out this event by searching Google under Madison River dam fails. There are many interesting interviews with local shop keepers and a pretty neat story about the 100 year old Anaconda Foundry which worked through the night to forge the part needed to fix the dam.

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