The Resurrection of Brewery Flats

How local citizens and public agencies joined forces to restore a channelized section of Big Spring Creek. By Anne Tews and Mark Lere

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
March–April 2002

Think trout fishing in Montana and images of famous rivers such as the Madison, Bighorn, and Missouri quickly come to mind. More thought might conjure up the Yellowstone, Bitterroot, and Big Hole. Rarely imagined, however, is Big Spring Creek—a trout angler’s secret hidden on the edge of the prairie in central Montana. Originating from the Madison limestone formation in the foothills of the Big Snowy Mountains, its 52-degree temperature and 50,000-gallon-per-minute flow provide ideal habitat for rainbow and brown trout. Up to 3,000 pounds of trout live in each mile of this productive stream, Big Spring Creek also is the lifeblood of Lewistown, an agricultural community where the locals boast of the city’s pure, untreated drinking water, remarkable fishing, and nearby picturesque scenery.

Like many Montana communities, Lewistown was built on a floodplain, where the soil is fertile and the land is flat. More than a century ago, when the town began to flourish and grow along the banks of Big Spring Creek, developers rerouted a portion of the twisty, turning stream into straight channels and tunnels to make room for housing, transportation, and industry. An example of the stream’s fate can still be found today in a downtown drinking establishment. A porthole through the floorboards of this bar gives patrons a chance for a fishy peep show, revealing Big Spring Creek under the floor as it tumbles down a dark runnel beneath three city blocks.

Another channelized reach of the creek is located just upstream of town in an area known as Brewery Flats. Unlike the reach flowing underneath Lewistown, however, the Brewery Flats stretch has recently been given a new lease on life in a remarkable restoration that drew on the expertise and enthusiasm of everyone from local school children to government officials.

Flash of a trout
Stop at the Brewery Flats Fishing Access Site (FAS) on Big Spring Creek today and you may hear the call of a song sparrow, see the flash of a trout in a clear deep pool, or glimpse a white-tailed deer slipping away through the underbrush. Yet for decades, this same stretch of river had been a major industrial site. At various times from the early 1900s to the mid-1980s, Brewery Flats was the site of a railroad yard, coal mine, oil refinery, feedlot, and, as the name indicates, a brewery. To make room for this development, the meanders of Big Spring Creek were straightened into a ditch that was routed off to the side, away from the development.

By 1985, when Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) purchased 23 acres of the Brewery Flats area to create a new fishing access site, the railroad was in bankruptcy and previous industries were just a memory. Nature had begun reclaiming the site with cattail marshes, cottonwood groves, and willow thickets. However, this process of re-naturalization could only go so far because the channel of Big Spring Creek remained confined to the straight ditch where it has been routed at the turn of the century.

“ It wasn’t much of a fishing area,” says Steve Leathe, the regional fisheries manager at Great Falls. “The stream was right next to the highway, and you couldn’t even fish from that bank without your backcast hooking a big pickup truck going by.”
That was all soon to change. Leathe remembers the day in 1993 when he and Ted Hawn, of the federal Natural Resource and Conservation Service, first envisioned what the Brewery Flats reach might become.

“ Ted had secured some federal funding for a stream restoration project.” Says Leathe, “so we were kind of road hunting for stream restoration projects around Lewistown.” The pair knew that Brewery Flats was seldom fished because of the fast currents and the lack of holding water for trout. As they drove by, the unnatural, rock-lined channel paralleling the highway became an obvious candidate for restoration.

Natural stream channels are almost always sinuous. Their pattern evolves with the landscape and follows the laws of physics. A channel’s curves and bends dissipate the energy of flowing water and efficiently move the silts and gravel transported by the stream. Meanders, or river bends, also are crucial in forming the pools and riffles typically found in natural channels, creating the environmental diversity necessary for healthy aquatic life.

Years of hard work
Restoring meanders to the stream channel at Brewery Flats was neither easy nor cheap. A feasibility study conducted in 1995 raised a series of questions that needed to be resolved before any work could begin. Who would fund the project? Could the old city waterlines be abandoned to make room for meanders? Was the site contaminated with industrial waste?

ould a newly constructed channel resist erosion? The vision Leathe and Hawn shared back 1993 became a reality only with the help of hundreds of people and several years of hard work. “It’s amazing how the project came together,” says Leathe.

Innovative partnerships and community cooperation were crucial in the eventual restoration. A coalition of local citizens, educators, civic groups, and government agencies—the Brewery Flats Planning and Development Committee—gathered information and community support for the restoration. Most of the $365,000 cost was drawn from the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program, state license dollars from FWP’s Future Fisheries Improvement Program, and federal highway monies from the Montana Department of Transportation. Other partners included Fergus County, the Society of American Foresters, the Natural Resource and Conservation Service, and the Fergus County Conservation District. Additionally, volunteers from local schools and members of the Montana Conservation Corps contributed hundreds of hours of labor.

In 1998, with public funding secure and local support strong, FWP hired Inter-Fluve, Inc., a Bozeman-based private consulting firm, to design and oversee construction of the restored stream channel. The design called for re-establishing stream meanders that mimicked the natural form of Big Spring Creek. The new channel would meander 4,000 feet back and forth across the Brewery Flats FAS, creating a different environment from the straight 2,600-foot ditch where the stream had been flowing for at least 80 years. During construction of the new channel, Big Spring Creek would continue to flow down the near-century-old ditch channel, which ran parallel to the highway. The project was scheduled to be done in just six months, but a series of unforeseen obstacles stretched the construction out to more than two years.

Troubles begin
The first problem arose in late 1998, as Inter-Fluve staff members slopped their way through mud and standing water on Brewery Flats to stake out the meandering pattern of the new channel.

“ Our crews were working in water over knee deep in places,” says Dale Miller, a company principal. “We knew right away we’d have to bring in low-ground-pressure trucks when construction began.” These specialized dump trucks—which move on large, tracked wheels similar to those of a military tank—were built for traversing marshy landscapes. Despite these difficult working conditions, crews were able to form the rough shape of the channel over a period of three weeks by excavating nearly 20,000 cubic yards of sloppy muck, which was stockpiled on-site to later fill the ditched channel.

Construction stalled again when crews realized that the new channel contained more mud than gravel. Streambed gravel is important for stabilizing channels and providing essential habitat for trout and the aquatic insects they eat. As designers figured out how to add gravel to the new meandering channel, crews and their heavy equipment were moved off-site, leaving the restoration project a half-completed, muddy mess. After a full year of discussion and planning, crews returned to the site to deepen the mud-bottomed channel and spread nearly 5,000 cubic yards of imported gravel and cobble into the streambed.

To stabilize the muddy banks, crews staked a heavy fabric mesh made of biodegradable coconut fibers along the entire reach. After a few weeks of additional construction, the new channel appeared ready to receive the water of Big Spring Creek.

Another delay
Unfortunately, something besides water was missing. Large portions of the new channel lacked streamside vegetation due in part to unavoidable trampling by construction equipment. Streamside vegetation is the glue that prevents stream banks from eroding. Although it meant another year-long delay, project leaders decided that an entire growing season was needed to re-establish willows, sedges, and other important vegetation. To give the plants a jump start, volunteers and school kids scattered seeds and planted hundreds of shrubs and trees. The revegetation efforts proved successful, as lush vegetation sprouted from the stream banks the following year.

Finally, Brewery Flats was ready. In September 2000, more than two years after construction began, water from Big Springs Creek was slowly diverted into the new channel. As the flow of water gradually submerged the streambed cobbles and filled the new stream channel, nature’s clock seemed to spin backwards—to a time before railroads and refineries, when Big Spring Creek last meandered freely across Brewery Flats.

As the old ditched channel began to gradually dry up, children from the local schools helped fisheries biologists rescue trout and other fish stranded in the shrinking pools.

“ The kids actually helped carry buckets of trout from the old, dewatered channel over into the new channel,” says Leathe. “It was great to see that kind of enthusiasm and interest by young people in a restoration project.”

Today, water flows down a stream that is 50 percent longer than the abandoned, ditched channel, which was completely filled in with the dirt that was stockpiled from the initial excavation work. Calm, deep pools at each bend in the creek lure anglers, and emerging willow thickets and dense mats of native grasses now anchor the stream banks. Over time, streamside vegetation and nearby wetlands will rejuvenate with spring floods, as floodwaters deepen pools and wash silt from riffles to create healthy fish habitat. Natural flooding, so vital to the health of streams and their associated floodplains, could not occur when Big Spring Creek flowed straight down the old entrenched channel.

In many ways, the new channel created at Brewery Flats resembles the creek that flowed there before the settlement of Lewistown. Some differences remain, however, Rainbow and brown trout have replaced the native cutthroat. And exotic ring-necked pheasants now flush from the tangles of cattail where 100 years ago only native birds would have sought shelter. Returning to the days when no one but the Assiniboine and Blackfeet camped along the stream is possible only with imagination.

The good new days
For sport anglers, however, these are the good new days at Brewery Flats. Rainbow and brown trout numbers already are more than 60 percent higher than the pre-project average, with roughly 700 trout 10 inches and longer making a home at the Brewery Flats FAS. Biologists expect the trout population to increase further as the new channel is scoured by floodwaters and more in-channel vegetation and woody debris accumulate providing even more habitat for trout.

Anglers aren’t the only visitors to the rejuvenated stream. A mile-long trail now winding through the FAS is popular for nature viewing and exercise, and local school teachers have adopted the 23-acre area as an outdoor classroom.
“ I’d always heard about communities getting into a local project,” says Leathe, “but I’d never experienced it on a large scale like this. The project really ignited local enthusiasm.”

The Brewery Flats project has also encouraged local folks to start work on other sites. Community leaders are now focusing on revitalizing abandoned industrial areas next to the FAS with the hope of creating a public greenway throughout the Brewery Flats area. In addition, the community is exploring more-ambitious projects including re-routing Big Spring Creek above ground through Lewistown and restoring natural meanders to about one mile of stream that was straightened years ago to make room for a mobile home park downstream of town.

If the Brewery Flats project is any indication, these future restoration projects will not be easy or cheap, but they will be well worth the effort.Bear bullet

Anne Tews is a fisheries biologist at Lewistown, and Mark Lere is the FWP Habitat Restoration Program officer at Helena