Only small pools remained as if abandoned by a receding tide. The thin sheen of ice crackled as my fingers plunged into what once was a trough formed by hydraulic downwelling in front of a boulder. The substrate writhed with life. Cupped hands emerged brimming with mottled sculpins, salmonfly nymphs, October caddis pupae, and juvenile brown trout. To the bucket, to the river channel 40 yards off, to a continued existence in flowing water they went. The Madison River retained one more handful of biodiversity.
Compounded by the hundreds of helping hands that arrived from points across the Mountain West, countless fish and invertebrates survived. Plenty more did not endure the precipitous drop in flow caused by a failed spillway gate in the Hebgen Dam controlling the upper river, although biologists said the damage could have been a lot worse.
In the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 30, a coupling on a metal shaft broke and mostly closed the spillway gate, stemming the river below Hebgen Lake from 640 cubic feet per second to below 200 in a matter of minutes, stranding fish on flats and in side channels. That included many spawning brown trout and their redds. But, according to numerous reports, Northwestern Energy, owner and operator of the dam, wasn’t even aware of it for half a day.
Kelly Galloup owns the Slide Inn Fly Shop a few miles below the dam. He said one of his employees noticed the nearly dewatered stretch of river between Hebgen and Quake lakes and began frantically calling Northwestern Energy but couldn’t get through to anyone.
“What they told me was that there's two alarms that didn't go off,” Galloup told MeatEater. “They saw the spike but thought it was a glitch, but then failed to go check if the glitch is real. So, you think it's a glitch, but you don't… check? They didn't show up until 1:00 p.m. Literally 12 hours later. As [a friend] told me, ‘That sounds a lot like Chernobyl.’”
Galloup is still stunned by how long it took the power company to even acknowledge the situation: “You'd think there'd be an emergency number for the dam. Some fly guy has to call up and can’t get through. He kept getting this ‘Do you smell gas?’ He just kept getting transferred.
“There's a dam keeper at the dam,” Galloup continued. “He lives in that yellow house right on the other side of the street. Every one of us gets up in the morning and looks at the graph of the flow of water here. You would think the [person] who gets paid to run it would get up and do the same thing. He could look out his front door literally and see that there was no water in the river.”
Many locals and anglers nationwide believe that’s an unacceptable response for a river that brings an estimated $27.5 million economic impact to the region.
“It's the Madison River, one of the top fisheries in the world,” Galloup said. “It should have looked like there was an assassination attempt up there. There should've been cars going by here at 100 all day. There's nothing. Nobody showed up.”
Galloup harkened back to 2008 when one of the stoplog devices failed on the same dam. His friends noticed it first and couldn’t reach anyone to address the issue. The dam was owned by a different energy company then, but the issues persist even after many years of reconstruction and a new rebuild ending two years ago.
“They don’t have a failsafe, they don’t have a backup,” he said. “It's one coupling that broke and they have no manual way to open and close those gates.”
Ultimately, a replacement part had to be fabricated at a shop in Anaconda then taken down to the lake-side foot of the dam by scuba divers to restore operation. The flow returned to normal by the early morning of Dec. 2.
John Malovich is the executive director of the Madison River Foundation. He said his organization and others are committed to making sure Northwestern Energy is held to account for this situation.
“What it all comes down to is there's no excuse acceptable in this case because the dam was retrofitted and renovated and updated not that long ago,” Malovich told MeatEater. “Alarms and electronic indicators should have gone off.”
As frustration with the power company simmers, many have discussed lawsuits and other penalties. Malovich said that it’s important first to observe the investigations and potential consequences from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the State of Montana. Conservation groups stand ready to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to make sure those proceedings are visible to the public.
“That’s the key for us, to hold them accountable and make sure those things are taken care of and fixed so it doesn’t happen again and reparations are made for what has happened,” Malovich said
Beyond measures to notify authorities promptly, Galloup, Malovich, and others believe there must be emergency means to circumvent Hebgen Dam—and more of the numerous dams blocking rivers across the state.
“I think there needs to be a better mitigation system and I've talked to the folks there about having hydraulic pumps in place and things like that,” Malovich said. “In this case of that gate failure, someone should have just flipped a switch on a pump and water should have been flowing and then they could work on that gate or other issues that they ran into. But that wasn't even an option, and it took 24 hours to get them to consider going out and picking one up and bringing it up to the site. So that's now in the conversation and now looking at that as a possible fixture that would be in place up there, heaven forbid they ever need to use it again.”
Luckily, however, local biologists believe that the damage could have been a lot worse—if the spillway had closed completely, if the low flows had persisted much longer, or if the unseasonably warm temperatures dropped.
“It’s tough to speculate because we don't have long-term data from that reach. Obviously we lost fish. We lost redds. The timing was unfortunate with browns having just wrapped up spawning” said Mike Duncan, a Madison River fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks who was on the scene helping to transport stranded fish to the main river channel.
“The main area of concern was between the lakes. And then in that area below Quake Lake down to Pine Butte, Eagle's Nest area,” Duncan told MeatEater. “We kind of lucked out because once you get below there, you're pretty much single channel with some small islands here and there. I'd say we would have had much greater impacts, but the limited number of side channels certainly helped us out.”
Concerns that isolated pools would freeze also did not materialize.
“It hit freezing just for a short period of time right at daybreak, but nothing froze [completely] up there,” Duncan said. “So, I'm still hopeful that some of those dry areas maybe had some surface or subsurface flow and the gravels remained moist. We might still have some viable eggs there, but again, we definitely lost eggs, lost some fish. But there were some other important spawning areas that remained submerged and had running water.
“I'm hopeful we're not going to see substantial population-level effects,” he continued. “But it's hard to tell at this point, and we didn't see that many dead fish. And I don't know whether that was because a lot of people were out on Tuesday and had either moved fish or birds picked them up.”
Duncan said that more information and mitigation plans are forthcoming: “We'll visit with Northwestern once the dust settles and see what went wrong. As far as the dam goes, the communication, the time it took for people to realize what had happened. Then we'll look at the guts of the dam and are there backup systems that should be put in place if a coupling like this breaks on the shaft, if there's something that can prevent the gate from shutting like it did or even further.”
He added that those discussions are also happening in regard to many other dams across the state. This opened people’s eyes to what can happen.
Duncan said his agency initially asked volunteers to stay out of the river immediately below the dam for safety and to protect trout nests, thinking that Northwestern would be able to quickly rectify the situation. When that didn’t appear likely, they changed their message and called for all hands on deck. He was surprised by the turnout.
“We, especially me, are super appreciative of the number of folks that showed up yesterday,” Duncan said. “When I saw it posted on Instagram, I knew immediately it was going to snowball into more of an effort than I had anticipated. You had guides out there and random anglers. I had the conservation districts and ranchers helping put water back in the river. We had irrigators cutting off ditches. The one nice thing that came out of this was to see everybody come together, put whatever differences we have aside and work together—and be super respectful yesterday with Northwestern and FWP staff.”
Galloup echoed that praise: “I had a guy call from California and say I can be there in 13 hours. I got called from a customer in South Dakota and he says I can be there in nine hours if I haul ass right now. We had guys from Missoula, Livingston, Dillon, Idaho Falls, one guy came up from Salt Lake. And that's just guys that I happened to talk to.
“We might've done more damage than good with this stomping around in the beds,” he concluded. “But holy shit dude, we had 200 people who gave a damn and showed up here and there's going to be a voice for this river now. When people get involved once, they're involved.”