WHITEFISH – In thick, wet mud, 33 students from Whitefish High School spent Nov. 6 working hard and getting dirty on the banks of Haskill Creek near Whitefish. Their efforts were part of a stream restoration project headed up by the Flathead Conservation District, the Haskill Basin Watershed Council and the River Design Group.
The stream bank and floodplain restoration has been in the works for almost three years and has cost $71,000, according to Patti Mason of the conservation district. The restoration of the quarter-mile stretch of stream began in mid-October and is the second such project in the Lower Haskill Basin since 2005.
River Design Group hydrologist and Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said many volunteers and nonprofit groups helped make the project possible. The restoration was funded with local, state and federal grants.
“It’s a collaborative effort between multiple stakeholders,” Muhlfeld said. “It took us two years to get the study done and put the funding in place.”
Haskill Creek meanders its way from Big Mountain in Whitefish all the way to Flathead Lake. In the early 2000s, a study of Flathead Lake’s water quality was completed and suggested cutting the amount of sediments that flow into the lake by 25 percent. In 2003, the River Design Group was contracted to do a study on Haskill Creek and it identified sections of stream that should be restored. Muhlfeld said that in the early 1900s, waterways such as Haskill Creek were channeled to benefit agriculture in the area. That effort to straighten the creek and eliminate flood plains meant water traveled faster and brought more sediment into Flathead Lake.
To restore the waterway, the banks of the creek were lowered and sloped. Trees and brush were planted along the way so that the roots system would bind the soils together. Much of the work of planting and watering trees fell to members of FREEFLOW, an after-school group at Whitefish High School that studies water basins.
“The whole idea is to understand how land-use practices affect the water basins we live in,” said Eric Sawtelle, a teacher and advisor for the club. “(Working on this) is good for the kids to get professional experience in the field that they could be working in.”
Sawtelle said the group has been around for about 15 years and has collected water samples and data from Haskill Creek. Last week, students studied the restored section of stream before planting dozens of tiny trees on the banks.
Taking a break from working in the mud, John Phelps looked on in awe as the kids kept at it. Phelps is a member of the Haskill Basin Watershed Council, backed by the Flathead Conservation District. He said the council was grateful for all the assistance, especially from the students, who were easy to motivate.
The restoration project will be completed this month. After that, Phelps said the watershed council will start to look for another project along the creek.
“I think we’ll get our study out and find the next area that needs work,” he said.
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