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The flow of water released from Hebgen Lake into the upper Madison River was returning to normal Thursday after NorthWestern Energy crews attached a new component to a malfunctioning gate on Hebgen Dam.

The gate was fixed late Wednesday night, according to a release from the utility company. Flows from the dam returned to roughly 650 cubic feet per second, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The fishing restriction placed on the upper Madison River by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks ends Friday, said Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for the state agency. The long term impacts of the plunge in flows are still uncertain and might not be known until next year, Jacobsen said.

“Based on observation yesterday, there was some fish mortality, for sure, but it could have been much worse,” Jacobsen said.

The area between Hebgen and Earthquake lakes just below the dam was hardest hit. Kelly Galloup, the owner of fly shop Slide Inn, which is just a few miles downriver from the dam, said that water levels in the channel behind his shop appeared to be returning to normal by Thursday afternoon.

He said that the malfunction could have been catastrophic, but that in reality only a small stretch of the 50-mile long section of river between the dam and Ennis Lake dried up from the reduced flows. Adult trout and other fish were not really affected by the drop in water levels, he said. And the spawning redds that had been exposed the day before were submerged once more.

“So it would have no effect on the economy of the fishery this year, or next year, if it was going to. But you got 50 miles of river, and 47 of it were unaffected,” Galloup said.

NorthWestern Energy’s initial response concerned him more. He said that the utility company failed to have a plan to answer the problem.

“Now I want to make sure the world pays attention ... because NorthWestern, they had no backup plan, no mechanical way to open the gate. If the power was out, they’re out,” Galloup said.

Before the late night fix, conservation groups called for NorthWestern Energy to be held accountable Wednesday for the dramatic plunge in water flow, which left some stretches of brown trout spawning redds exposed, and also stranded fish moving on side channels along the Madison River.

Derf Johnson, clean water program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said in an interview that the conservation group wants an independent, third-party investigation to gather facts about what happened.

“That being said, we are an organization that is not afraid to hold powerful interests accountable,” Johnson said.

The Upper Missouri Waterkeeper conservation group is considering action as well. A spokesperson for the organization said in an email to the Chronicle that the group is “considering the legal ramifications of Northwestern Energy’s tragic dewatering of the Upper Madison.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte wrote on Twitter Wednesday that an investigation would occur once flows returned to normal levels on the Madison River. The governor’s spokesperson Brooke Stroyke confirmed in an email that an investigation would occur, but to what extent and when was not clear.

“The governor is relieved to see river flows in the Madison returning to normal. The state is actively exploring next steps. As the governor indicated, a full investigation will take place and appropriate action taken,” Stroyke said.

Since NorthWestern Energy holds a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the dam, any kind of enforcement likely lies at the federal level, Johnson said.

The utility company has to file a report with FERC, including information on what caused the issue, any unusual operating incidents that may have led to the issue and steps taken to rectify it, according to reporting requirements from the federal agency.

Celeste Miller, a spokesperson for FERC, said in an email that the company has 14 days to file its report, and that it is due on Dec. 15.

NorthWestern Energy’s Hydro Operations Director Jeremy Clotfelter told reporters on Wednesday that the federal agency conducted an inspection on the gate this summer. Miller confirmed that the inspection occurred on Aug. 25, and that there were no significant findings that warranted action.

A copy of the inspection report was not made public however Miller said that all hydroelectric inspection reports are considered “critical energy infrastructure information,” which can only be obtained through an information request to FERC. She said that the agency does not have a statutory timeframe to answer those requests.

Correspondence from the agency to NorthWestern Energy related to the inspection indicated that “no conditions were found that would require immediate remedial action.”

Galloup, whose fly fishing shop is a few miles downstream from the Hebgen Dam, said that the situation reminded him of when the dam had a failure in 2008. A failure in the dam’s intake tower caused over 3,000 CFS of water to gush downstream on the river.

“It’s a little frightening that two times this thing broke, and both times it was a good thing we were standing here,” Galloup said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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