Augusta flood solutions are complicated

Staring at the grizzly tracks on Elk Creek Road, Lewis and Clark County staff assessed the damage caused by the Memorial Day 2019 flooding in and around Augusta. No longer in its historical channel, Elk Creek now runs down Elk Creek Road and down the west side of Elk Creek bridge #5 just past the Krause homestead. The creek is running to the bridge from three directions, creating a head scratcher for those involved in repairs. Originally scheduled to be replaced this summer, installing a new bridge is now a moot point until the bigger issue is solved: how to get Elk Creek Road open at all.

There is no simple solution. The stream simply did what an alluvial stream naturally does. Over time, it picks up rocks and sediment as it moves down the mountain, then drops it out of the water column as the creek hits flatter ground and slows. Over time, the creek floods and moves because that is what creeks and rivers do. Geological time may seem stagnant to us, but in reality, the rivers and mountains around us are constantly changing.

Elk Creek Road leads to the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Elk Creek Trailhead and hundreds of thousands of acres of public land. There are no permanent residences past bridge #5, only a handful of seasonal cabins and private property along the way. The dirt road is a county road, determined long ago in the annals of the County.

There are seven bridges along the road, all maintained by the County per State statute. Two brand new bridges sit waiting to replace the current #5 and #6 bridges. Number 7 washed out in last year’s flood and a temporary water crossing was put in place until a new bridge could be installed. That is now on hold. It is not known if a similar temporary crossing can be put in place at the #5 bridge since the creek now runs down the road.

This is the second year in a row the Augusta area experienced a “hundred year flood event.” This means in any given year, there is a 1% chance of a flood of this magnitude. According to residents, prior to 2018 the last large flood occurred in the early 1970’s, but the 2018 and 2019 floods have been some of the worst.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise, an Augusta resident herself, has watched her friends, neighbors, family and co-workers cope as land, buildings, roads and bridges are swept downstream. As a Commissioner, she understands all too well the impacts to the County as it works to keep public infrastructure open. Geise’s husband runs cows and they have watched 30 years of his land improvements wash away. Twice. He knows his life-long friends are equally affected.

Geise concluded more needs done, and in less than a month, initiated a task force to look comprehensively at Elk Creek, Smith Creek, Goss Creek and Ford Creek and the properties they run through, to hopefully mitigate some of the effects of these flood events.

The Lewis and Clark Conservation District has taken the lead on the efforts, and State agencies, private business, landowners and other stakeholders will be at the table. Coordinating, not duplicating efforts is the goal. There is no single solution, but ideally, a starting point will be a hydrological study of Elk Creek to gather data on its status. The Conservation District hopes to secure a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation grant to pay for the study and the goal is to begin fall 2019. From there, it will take collaboration, ingenuity and money to determine some viable solutions.

Meanwhile, crews continue to repair the roads and bridges in the area and take a comprehensive look at Elk Creek Road and its bridges. The solution and timeline is unknown; however, Lewis and Clark County will continue to work hard to help its Augusta community.

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