Proposed center at the University of Montana would focus on Montana’s rivers

Local research could help rivers all over the world

Two UM geology professors want to create a research center that would bring a
variety of researchers from all over the world to UM to study Montana’s rivers.

Bryan O’Connor
Montana Kaimin

The faculty senate is examining the proposal for the Center for Riverine Science and
Stream Re-naturalization. The senate will vote on whether to approve the proposal at
its meeting on May 9. Bill Woessner, one of the draft writers of the proposal, said
Tuesday that the center would bring together researchers who are already working
on river research projects.

“What the center is trying to do,” Woessner said, “is gather and link up the expertise
we already have with state and federal agencies, research laboratories and private

Woessner said the goal of the center is not to actually do stream restoration, but
rather to work with the companies that already do it. The center, he said, would
share its research conclusions with those companies, or study the effects of their
work after they complete a restoration project.

“I think that’s the difference,” Woessner said. “It’s not just fix the river up and then go

Woessner pointed out that he and professor Johnnie Moore — who co-authored the
proposal — are not looking to compete with the restoration companies, but to assist
them in any way possible with the findings of their research. Moore said the center
would be timely, given the direction of development along Montana’s rivers.

“It’s critical that we do something pretty soon in understanding what the effects of
humans are on rivers,” Moore said. “Because they’re pretty bad at this point in time.”

Both Woessner and Moore said the research will not only benefit Montana’s
streams, but some of the research will be applied to rivers all over the world. Moore
said the Clark Fork River and its complex set of contamination and flow issues are
not really unique because there are many rivers in the United States dealing with
mining clean-up operations.

The research will not only deal with physical constraints of rivers — like flow and
erosion questions — but will also involve geochemists, botanists and biologists.
Woessner said they are contacting several different sources to see if they are
interested in collaborating on the project.

Woessner said most of the response has been positive, mainly because they are
not asking for money, only asking researchers who are already involved in stream
restoration studies to participate. As far as funding goes, he said, the plan is shaped
to minimize the financial burden to the university.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that nobody wants another center that burdens the
academic center,” Woessner said. “There is no interest to try to use state general
fund monies.”

The start-up funding for the center would come from the vice president of research
and development’s office, from non-general funds, Woessner said. After that, he
said, he expects all the funding to come from state and federal grant money and
private sources.

“The plan is during the second year of operation,” Woessner said, “that we’ll be
basically independently operating, relative to the budget of the university.”

The controversial Milltown Dam would be a part of the research the center would
tackle but Woessner said it is hard to tell what the best course of action is with the

“We need to know enough about how the whole system works,” Woessner said, “so
that we can make a good decision.”

Whatever the dam state, Woessner said, it’s important that the decision is made by
people who know what the consequences of their actions will be.

“You can’t have a group of people driven by politics figure that out,” Woessner said.
“You’ve got to have a group of people who are scientists who are independent of

The decision should be one that minimizes the impact to the environment and the
channel of the river itself, Woessner said, taking into account erosion, biological and
contamination concerns.

One group that has showed interest is some researchers from the Cold Regions
Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire, Moore said. He said they
are experts in the field of ice jam formation and sediment transport, which are both
hot topics on the Clark Fork River.

Another group of biologists from the USGS are also showing interest in the center.
They are researching the response of aquatic insects to heavy metals
contamination, Moore said.

Moore recently took a class to California to study the Sacramento River and some of
its tributaries. He said they were able to look at what the effects of mining,
development, agriculture and dams were having on that river, on a much more
massive scale than Montana rivers.

Moore said many people think Montana has a long way to go before it starts to have
the water problems California is experiencing. But he thinks it is not that far off if
steps are not taken to maintain the streams naturally.

“I think our long-term goal is to figure out the ways and means to manage and return
rivers that are highly affected by humans,” Moore said, “to some kind of a natural

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