A word of caution to floaters and anglers: The next two summers look to get a little choppy where the Blackfoot River meets the Clark Fork.

On Feb. 28, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a proposal to intermittently close the confluence to recreation as the Interstate 90 bridge spanning it undergoes reconstruction this year and next. According to river recreation manager Christine Oschell, the closure won’t be a season-long shutdown, but rather a coordinated effort between FWP and the Montana Department of Transportation to ensure that access is restricted only on days when construction poses a risk to public safety.

“The objective for us is to keep the river open as much as we can,” Oschell says. “But obviously if we’re asked, for safety reasons, and also maybe logistics for them, we will do what we need to do.”

FWP is currently soliciting public comment on the proposed closure through March 16.

Under the temporary rules, recreationists would be barred from floating, swimming or wading downstream of the Weigh Station Fishing Access Site whenever FWP and MDT determine that conditions are unsafe. Oschell says FWP would alert the public to such closures as early as possible and position two river rangers at Weigh Station. The agency is also working on temporary signage.

“We’ve asked for at least a certain amount of time — I can’t remember exactly, but it was at least a week — so that we could give notice to the public,” Oschell adds. “But we haven’t been assured that will be the case.”

Oschell can’t say how often closures might occur, or how long each might last. Details on the bridge construction have been hard to come by, she says, due to “minimal contact” with MDT. She’s optimistic that communication will improve, but notes that the river recreation season is “not far away.”

Public safety has been an ongoing concern at the confluence since it first opened to recreation in 2015. The piers supporting the I-90 bridge weren’t designed with moving water in mind, and modifications following the removal of Milltown Dam created hazardous hydraulic conditions, especially at high flows. As the Indy reported in 2012, a dummy sent through the confluence by the Missoula Rural Fire District disappeared in an eddy and never emerged.

According to Missoula-based firm Partners Creative, which is working with MDT to disseminate public information, the project’s main intent is to remove the piers from the river permanently. So while the next couple of summers may bring occasional inconvenience, Oschell is confident the construction will bring closure to the bigger issue.

“We did a lot of public education [about the hazards],” she says. “We didn’t see a ton of use through there, and I was wondering if we scared people … It’ll be interesting to see if use picks up when those piers are taken out.”

Staff Reporter

Alex Sakariassen began working at the Indy in early 2009. He primarily reports on state politics, the environment and the craft beer industry. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Choteau Acantha and Britain’s Brewery History Journal.

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