Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson
On Tuesday evening in the Duck Inn Olympic Room, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Tom Sawatzke opens a meeting with a Powerpoint presentation summing up reasons the bureau closed fishing access at the Fresno Dam spillway.
While he made no promises, a U. S. Bureau of Reclamation representative told a Havre crowd Tuesday that there is a chance to move fishing closer to Fresno Dam.
"I'm trying to tell you that we have a responsibility to provide a secure facility — that is kind of a gray definition — and we want the people safe, " Reclamation Deputy Area Manager Tom Sawatzke said Tuesday at the end of a two-hour meeting in Havre. "I think, if we can do those two things, there is room to move boundaries around. "
After the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Reclamation restricted access to the spillway below Fresno Dam, which had been a popular spot for fishing for decades.
Most of the discussion revolved around a proposal by Kent Gilge, a local fisherman and retired fish biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to move the boundary 50 yards closer to the dam, to the end of the concrete wing walls below the dam.
Gilge said that still would provide adequate — he argued better — security for the dam.
The bureau has conducted an assessment on security risks at the facility, and agreed to hold a public listening session to hear people's ideas on moving the boundary closer to the dam to increase access for fishermen.
The Bureau of Reclamation completed construction of the dam, part of the Milk River Project, in 1939. Its primary purpose was to store water for irrigation in the Milk River, with a secondary purpose of providing flood control.
Recreation has become a major part of incidental benefits at the dam and reservoir and along the Milk River Project overall.
Sawatzke said that there are many concerns the bureau has to address along with the general operation and maintenance of the facility. Along with the safety of people recreating there, the bureau has to watch the cost of preventing and repairing damage to the site.
"We need to pay attention to the safety and the extra money it takes to clean up after people who aren't in this room and want to damage stuff, because it happens, " said Sawatzke, who works out of the bureau's Montana Area Office.
Gilge said most of the concerns are moot. He said his proposal uses historical data from Fresno as well as practices at other dams in the country to address Reclamation's concerns, which would deal with security and safety concerns while allowing people to fish at one of the prime fishing sites in the area.
Gilge said that before the closure people fished right up to the dam in every conceivable stream flow situation.
"We did this without incident or problem for over 60 years, " he said. "That's six decades of proof that this is not the hazard, perhaps, you think it is. "
Gilge added that a number of other people who fished at the spillway as children or teenagers would have come to the meeting to testify.
"But they're all dead, because that's how long people have been fishing this site without incident, " he said.
Gilge said simple precautions like using a warning horn — or even a bullhorn — to warn people fishing that water release would be increased, using cameras to monitor vandalism, and that having more people using the site would help with reporting and stopping people from misbehaving.
The more than 50 people who came to the meeting tended to be polite and respectful, and applauded after every speaker, even if they did not agree with the comments.
One member of the audience — and only one — spoke directly in favor of the current boundary.
Megan Varner, the Great Falls Tribune staff writer covering the meeting, said that she had looked at the area earlier Monday, and the spot blocked off looks like the most dangerous to her. She said the issue doesn't seem to be much one of security — the chance of a terrorist attack west of Havre seems slim.
"More what these guys are trying to do is protect us from ourselves, because I know lots of people do lots of things meaning very well, and accidents happen, " she said.
"Americans have become very sue-happy, " Varner added. "This is the government's way of protecting itself from people sueing it for their own mistakes. "
But audience member Bob Ingram of Havre replied that nothing will stop lawsuits.
"Everybody knows about the lady who got a million dollars because she spilled the hot coffee from McDonald's, " he said. "Nothing that the government does, nothing that we do as individuals, is going to stop that, so that is a moot point as well. "
Ingram said the federal government seems to want to "baby sit us and give us more and more regulations. "
He said that personal responsibility might be a better answer, and added that Gilge's proposal seems to address all of the concerns raised by Reclamation.
Scott Lind, who worked for FWP in the 1990s and spent six months working at Fresno, said he saw safety problems in the lake itself and on the shore, but not at the spillway.
"If safety is the concern, you better shut the whole lake down, " he said.
As far as damage to the facility, especially with people throwing items in the quieting pond below the dam that have to be removed and that damage the facilities, several people said the bigger problem is people throwing things from the dam, not hauling them upstream to throw in.
"It seems like you've got the attic window locked, and the front door is wide open, " said Ben Springer.
Dale Shulund said the "elephant in the room" is that the issue started as a question of security, but now the federal government is there regulating fishing access.
"Everybody just wants to go fishing. There was no problem at all, " Shulund said. "Now we've got to jump through hoops, and for what? "
Dennis Hanson of Chester said people who want greater access returned to fish at Tiber Dam are watching what happens with Fresno very closely.
"(All of the things) you've said about here also are going on at Chester, " he said, adding that he thinks he heard good points at the Havre meeting and those points will get back to the bureau.
"We're going to fight up there, too, " Hanson said. "You guys put up a good fight here, and we're going to do the same thing. "
Sawatzke said people made good, articulate points, and that he would take them back to the bureau's state and regional security people, safety people and operations and maintenance people and discuss the issues with them, although he could give no timeline on when a decision would be made.
He added that having a clear proposal presented by Gilge will help with the process.
"That really gets us off the ground so to speak, and he's … addressing the right things: safety, security, protection, vandalisms, and that's good stuff, " Sawatzke said.
"I don't have a deadline for you, though, but we're going to work on it, " he added. "I know it's a priority. "