This land was their land before the Flathead River swallowed it

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Posts with orange paint show where Harry Wollís fence line used to run before being consumed by erosion. Less than five years ago, this was a valuable hay field. In 2006, almost 30 feet of Wollís property fell into the Flathead River, forcing him to convert three acres into pasture. Woll contends that increased boat traffic, when the water levels rise, is compounding the erosion sweeping away his land. Michael Richeson/Daily Inter Lake

For years, Harry Woll and Eugene Lee have watched their land disappear into the Flathead River.

Lee, whose 245 acres includes more than a mile of river frontage, has lost from 10 to 20 feet to the river's ever-expanding boundaries. Large fence posts that used to stand on solid ground now are in the river. His unpaved runway that ran parallel to the river also is gone.

A large sandbar has materialized a couple hundred meters from his property. Lee points to the land that used to be part of his Flathead River ranch. Now, it's a nice resting spot for ducks and geese.

The cause of all the erosion?

Lee is convinced that increased boat traffic during the past 10 years, coupled with higher water levels because of Kerr Dam, are ripping his property into the water.

Lee lives on Riverside Road, and a proposed boat-storage facility about 1.5 miles upriver has him concerned that even more of his land will disappear because of erosion. Pete Rice and Jason Eliason are the landowners proposing the facility.

Woll lives on the opposite side of the river from Lee, and his losses have been even greater. Woll also owns close to a mile of river-front land, and he has watched 50 to 70 feet of his land vanish.

In 2006 alone, Woll lost 24 feet of his land in one area.

The erosion has gotten so bad that he has converted many acres of his land into pasture instead of money-making hay land. One day a few years ago, he cut hay on property that bordered the river. When he went out the next day to bale the hay, he found land holding two full rows of hay had crumbled away.

"I said 'Forget it,'" Woll said. "I'm not getting near the edge with a baler."

The river has consumed countless trees, fence lines and gates along with valuable land.

How much of Woll's 415 acres are submerged?

"Lots," he said. "It's sure not 415 acres any more."

Woll is quick to point out the potential hazards of more erosion. A dike built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1800s lines part of his property. Erosion has cut into the dike and is rendering the blockade worthless.

In 1948, a major flood pushed waters to the top of the dike. Woll said that flood was much worse than the famous 1964 flood but fewer people were around.

"Half of a '64 would be much worse now," he said.

Woll, Lee and homeowners along the eight-mile stretch of Flathead River between the proposed boat-storage facility and Flathead Lake are upset at the prospect of as many as 80 more boats a day making their way to the lake - and creating damaging wakes as they pass.

"It will have huge impacts, or potentially could," Mark Lorang said. Lorang is a research scientist with the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

A study that Lorang performed in California measured boat-wake erosion. In one day, 136 boats caused about two centimeters of erosion. If Lorang's numbers are applied to the Flathead River at 80 boats per day, property owners could see almost one foot of land per month wash away.

At an informational meeting last week in Creston, Rice and Eliason told homeowners that their customers would be encouraged to observe a no-wake zone as they traveled down the river.

But Lee and Woll both scoff at the idea that people will drive their boats at 3 to 5 mph, which would take them one to two hours just to get to the lake.

"The storage is six miles too far up the river," Lee said. "There's no way people are going to take that much time to get to the lake."

Mark Deleray, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the increased boat traffic from the storage facility could negatively affect the river banks.

"The banks are mostly comprised of sand and silt," he said. "There's no natural armament to protect them from the energy of a wave breaking on them. What the landowners are experience are beyond just natural erosion rates."

Deleray said that because of Kerr Dam, the lower stretch of Flathead River acts more like a lake environment during the summer, which attracts more boaters.

"This is where the boaters and skiers come when the lake is too rough," Lee said. Lee and Woll both struggle to keep boaters from using their land as picnic areas and trash cans.

More traffic in the summer leads to more bank erosion, which leads to dirty, murky waters.

"Any concern with degradation with water quality is a fisheries concern," Deleray said. "That has the potential to affect Flathead Lake."

Deleray said he will be at the public meeting beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn to present information. A large public turnout is expected, but probably will have little effect on the outcome of the storage facility.

The Flathead Conservation District, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Flathead County Floodplain Administrator, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation all are involved with the permit process for the storage facility.

The permits, however, only apply to the three boat ramps, two docks and 90 feet of riprap that are proposed. Legally, none of the permits can be denied because of public opposition or because of future use. Impacts of increased boat traffic aren't applicable in this case.

Because the land is unzoned, the applicants are well within their rights to build the storage facility.

Riverside Road residents, though, aren't giving up. Landowners are calling everyone from Gov. Brian Schweitzer to the Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters.

"We'll never stop the erosion, but we should keep something like this from ruining us in a hurry," Lee said.

Reporter Michael Richeson may be reached at 758-4459 or by E-mail at mricheson@dailyinterlake.com

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