Attention Shifts to Watercraft Traffic on Whitefish River

By Beacon Staff

From its northern headwaters at the lakeshore near City Beach, the Whitefish River meanders gently through the heart of town, ambling past residential neighborhoods and forested parks before ditching for the rural outskirts.

Once befouled by decades of contaminated sediment from the nearby rail yard, the upper reaches of river are now revitalized and reopened to paddlers and other recreationists after nearly five years of environmental remediation.

Now that the popular river passage is restored and attracting flocks of users, the City of Whitefish is reviving a proposal to prohibit motorized watercraft from navigating a six-mile stretch inside the river corridor.

Councilor Richard Hildner is spearheading a petition to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to designate a portion of the local river as the state’s first urban non-motorized waterway. Hildner is proposing the FWP Commission prevent jet skis and other motorboats from roving the segment of river between its origin at Whitefish Lake and the bridge at Highway 40.

The Whitefish City Council reviewed Hildner’s resolution on Sept. 3 and voted to hold a public hearing and further consider the matter on Nov. 4.

The interplay between motorized watercraft and the narrow waterway through Whitefish has persisted for decades. In 1989, the council voted unanimously to petition FWP to implement a no-wake restriction on the river after complaints stacked up over jet skis and motorboats speeding along the corridor and endangering paddlers and waterfront docks. FWP concurred, yet problems lingered.

Tensions boiled over in the fall of 2007, and the council voted unanimously in support of FWP heightening restrictions and prohibiting watercraft with internal combustion motors on the stretch of river within city limits. But public backlash surfaced among property owners, and the council rescinded its proposal the following month.

The issue resurfaced over the last year as BNSF Railway approached the end of its cleanup project. The council tabbed the resolution for turning Whitefish River into a non-motorized waterway during its annual goal setting session a year ago, and reaffirmed its commitment this spring.

BNSF and the City of Whitefish recognized the completion of the cleanup project with a public ceremony and dedication of a new public river access for non-motorized users on Aug. 1.

“The primary concern is public safety,” Hildner wrote in his resolution proposing changing the river designation. “Non-motorized use on the river is increasing, including swimming, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), floating and boating. The river presents several challenges to motorized users such as limited sight distances, narrow waterway, and speed. As a consequence of the BNSF River clean up, river use appears to be increasing.”

Several sections of the river are shallow and narrow, Hildner contends, increasing safety risks between boaters and other users.

Hildner also raised resource concerns associated with motorized use, citing wave action and motorized disturbance that he said needs to be minimized and controlled.

“The shoreline of the Whitefish River is highly erodible and this is exacerbated by wave action from motorized craft,” he wrote. “Increased siltation contributes to the eutrophication of the River and Flathead Lake. Eroded silts carry phosphorus to the river. The Whitefish River is home to a wide variety of plants, animals, and fishes.”

Hildner’s overarching contention is that the Whitefish River is an essential yet fragile natural resource in need of protection, as he stated in his memo.

A handful of critics turned out for the Sept. 3 meeting, seeking exemptions for electric motors or motors with low horsepower. Others simply opposed the proposal.

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