DARBY – When Tex Marsolek was a youngster, it was nothing to catch a stringer filled with fat, 14-inch cutthroat trout out 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, following the flight. “Our airplane offers a different view that can be important for accomplishing conservation work.”

The lease of water for in-stream flows in Tin Cup Creek was one of the first in the state obtained by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Knutson said.

The lease was later acquired by the Missoula-based conservation group, Montana Water Trust, and then by the coalition after it joined forces with the trust.

Good on-the-ground science completed by members of the water trust helped build trust between the conservation groups and irrigators and opened the conversation that allowed the two to work together to get the dam reconstructed.

“It’s really become a win/win situation,” Knutson said. “The Tin Cup irrigators get the water they need for late-summer irrigation and the in-stream flows provide the high-quality cool waters needed for aquatic life to survive.”

Increasing the storage capacity of the reservoir ensures that there is enough water in the system for everyone, she said.

Over the years, the district and U.S. Forest Service have been challenged by wilderness advocacy groups over the use of helicopters to transport materials into wilderness dams in the Bitterroot.

Those groups were unsuccessful in stopping the efforts at Tin Cup.

Marsolek said three helicopter companies – R&R Conner, Canyon Lakes and Montana Aero – transported 268,670 pounds of materials into the dam site in 114 helicopter flights.

“Divide that figure by 200 pounds to see just how many mule trips that would have required,” Marsolek said.

The new, satellite-controlled headgate system allows dam operators to make small changes to take into account flow variances in the creek or surface elevations in the reservoir.

“All of that can be done now without getting on a horse and riding for five hours to get to the dam,” he said. “We can micromanage the reservoir to get the maximum benefit from what water we have to work with.”

As far as he knows, Marsolek said there isn’t another system quite like it anywhere else in the West.

“It’s kind of a prototype,” he said. “Other people are very interested in what we have here.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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