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Environmental groups want Northwestern Energy to fund ecological assessment after dam malfunction

Environmental groups are requesting an ecological assessment and monetary relief after a dam in southwest Montana operated by NorthWestern Energy malfunctioned last fall, leaving fish stranded.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Madison River Foundation want the utility company to pay for an ecological assessment on the Madison River, including an inventory of the brown trout population.

The groupsfiled a citizen complaint Wednesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying they're concerned that low flows impacted the fishery downriver from Hegben Dam, which malfunctioned in late November.

“What we are hoping for is that if there is some pretty obvious and negative consequences associated with NorthWestern's dewatering of the Madison River that they pony up and make sure that people who are financially damaged from this event are made whole,” said Derf Johnson, a staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

The complaint also requests that NorthWestern fund ecological restoration if needed on the Madison River.

YPR reached out to FERC, but the agency declined to comment saying the filing is under review.

In a December response letter to an incident report filed by NorthWestern, the agency says the energy company should install alarms downstream of Hebgen Dam as well as cameras to alert staff of potential low flows. After the dam failed, nearly 10 hours passed before NorthWestern Energy found out there was a problem.

FERC also says more permanent repairs at the dam site are needed.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.