BIGFORK –The PacifiCorp hydroelectric dam operator has gone home for the day and the turbines are slowly winding down. It’s just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday evening, and one of the two arches under the dam, churning out bubbling water, is starting to slow down. A few minutes later bubbles from the next arch grow smaller and quieter. Slowly, all that’s left is the sound of the rushing Swan River.
PacifiCorp’s hydroelectric dam in Bigfork isn’t producing energy on this night. The water is running at about 850 cubic feet per second (CFS), nearly the lowest possible for a dam release.
“Unless we get a huge rainstorm this will probably be the last one of the year,” says Jeff Hymas, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp, which owns the dam.
In 2002 American Whitewater signed an agreement with PacifiCorp and several other national and local entities to do weekly, scheduled water releases from the hydroelectric dam beginning in 2004. The goal was to provide recreational opportunities for boaters on the Swan River, famed for its kayaking, even in the low water months of later summer. Following a public comment period, the releases were scheduled for Wednesdays throughout the summer and better boating access points were established.
PacifiCorp is in charge of maintaining appropriate levels in the main reservoir, providing river access, ensuring necessary flows for the annual Whitewater Festival and administering the dam releases from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday evenings through July and August. August 6, however, looked to be the last release because water flow is approaching the minimum of 800 cubic feet per second. Kayakers keep tabs on how high the water is running by checking in with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Real-Time Stream Flow data online.
Boaters come to Bigfork from all over to run Class IV rapids in the Swan River’s “Wild Mile,” especially during May’s Whitewater Fest. But after May, the Wednesday night releases are key for the local boating community, providing an after-work or weekend spot during the hotter, drier weeks of July and August.
“It’s like the only exciting whitewater to run right now,” says Dan Short, who has been doing Wednesday release nights for several years now. “Definitely make a point to make Wednesdays. It’s kind of the highlight of the week.”
Earlier in the season PacifiCorp was able to generate power as they were releasing water from the dam because of the high water levels. But in the beginning of August low stream flows made this impossible and officials shut down the generators during the four-hour release. The release was only used for recreational boaters then.
Short’s Aug. 6 outing was his third time on the Wild Mile this season, and he said the water’s been consistently good. During the season he also hits Logan Creek, up by Tally Lake, and Bear Creek – where the Middle Fork of the Flathead River comes out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
With a summer of good water behind him, Short says it’s done now.
“It’s been the best year since I can remember,” Short says before catching up with his shuttle back to the put-in for another lap.
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