State faces deadline to complete Lake Elmo work before irrigation water returns | Local News

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The water returns to Lake Elmo beginning April 15, and before it arrives, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks has a lot of work to do.

“It’s a tight schedule,” said Mark Ruggles, the regional fisheries manager for FWP who oversees work on the lake.

The water retained by Lake Elmo comes from the irrigation system operated by the Billings Bench Water Association. The BBWA’s main ditch begins at the Yellowstone River near Laurel and carries water to farmland east of Billings Heights.

BBWA turns on that water in April as farmers and ranchers in eastern Yellowstone County begin work for spring planting and the summer growing season. Water flowing through Lake Elmo eventually reaches some of these farms.

“We fully expect to get the waters flowing,” said BBWA board member Gary Davis. “These users are waiting for their water.”

Before he can arrive, Lake Elmo crews must complete construction of the lake’s headgate, which requires large amounts of concrete and time to harden.

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This concrete must be poured by Monday so that it hardens by April 15, when the first water will flow. Work on the head gate has taken a bit of a backlog, so the pressure is on, Ruggles said.

“Our teams are ready,” he said. “They know the week before the 15th will be jamming time.”

FWP began draining Lake Elmo last fall to eradicate and prevent the spread of Asiatic clams, a tiny invasive species that was discovered in the lake bed in 2019.

With a nearly empty lake, FWP took the opportunity and spent the fall and winter installing a number of improvements to bolster the health of the lake’s ecosystem and enhance the recreational experience, including the Peach.

FWP crews have already installed fish habitats on the lake bed known as Georgia Cubes and Catfish Condos.

Georgia Cubes are a series of three large black boxes connected by a type of rubber hose that allows fish to breed and grow before entering the open waters of the lake. FWP biologists found that three was the ideal number for cube clusters to produce the highest density of fish and the greatest diversity of fish species.

Crews have also constructed gravel fish spawning grounds and brush piles from eradicated Russian olive trees that will also serve as fish habitat.

Along the shore, crews have built knots from which visitors can fish or picnic. The beach section has been improved and work on an improved walkway around the lake and landscaping will continue until June.

More importantly, FWP officials found no signs of Asiatic clams.

“I haven’t found anything that appears to have survived,” Ruggles said. “We’re pretty confident we got them. But it only takes one.”

Invasive clams can reproduce quickly and in sufficient numbers to clog municipal irrigation and water systems. They filter nutrients from the water that are needed to support fish and desirable organisms in the food chain. FWP feared that if left unchecked, clams would spread through irrigation ditches to the Yellowstone River and beyond.

The tiny clams were discovered during a wildlife and water park training exercise at Lake Elmo, designed to teach state wildlife officers how to discover and identify invasive species. The training worked exactly as planned, as it found the Asiatic clams, mostly clustered near the boat launches.

Later searches of an irrigation storage reservoir and ditches and rivers upstream and downstream of the lake found no other Asiatic clams, suggesting that they are restricted to Lake Elmo. Invasive clams are found nowhere else in Montana.

Ruggles hopes that with Lake Elmo staying dry all winter, it will stay that way.

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