DARBY, Mont. – When Tex Marsolek was a youngster, it was nothing to catch a stringer filled with fat, 14-inch cutthroat trout out of Tin Cup Creek west of Darby.
He can also remember the long string of years that followed when the last few miles of the creek went bone dry at the end of summer because there wasn’t enough water to meet irrigation demands and the trout almost disappeared.
This year – for the first time in many – he has high hopes that generations to come will make their own memories catching fish in the creek again.
Those hopes follow a unique partnership that brought irrigators together with members of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition to make much-needed repairs to the dam at Tin Cup Lake and install a state-of-the-art, satellite-controlled irrigation headgate capable of micromanaging the water in the reservoir.
Crews finished a $370,000 project to refurbish the 106-year-old dam last November. That work included covering the face of the dam with rock, constructing a concrete spillway, creating a new boom system to keep debris away from the dam, and installing the new headgate.
“The project brought us up to current dam safety standards,” Marsolek said.
Just as important, it also allowed the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District to capture the 2,000 acre-feet of water the reservoir historically held.
Due to a variety of issues with the dam’s structure over the years, the district had been only able to store about 911 acre-feet in the reservoir prior to the work being completed.
None of it would have been possible without the financial support of the Clark Fork Coalition, which through its partner, the Montana Water Trust, obtained $300,000 from the Columbia Basin Water Transaction Program for habitat restoration.
In return, the coalition obtained a lease for 400 acre-feet of water from the reservoir for late-summer in-stream flows.
“We couldn’t have made it work without them,” Marsolek said. “There is no way we would have been able to get sufficient funding without help from the Clark Fork Coalition and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.”
FWP chipped in $100,000 to help pay for the helicopter work.
On Thursday, Marsolek joined the coalition’s executive director, Karen Knutson, for an aerial view of Tin Cup Lake on board Bruce Gordon’s Aspen, Colo.-based Ecoflight.
Gordon has been flying people interested in conservation issues for 25 years to places all around the West.
“It’s a good way for people to get a new perspective on what’s happening on the ground,” Gordon said after the flight. “Our airplane offers a different view that can be important for accomplishing conservation work.”