MISSOULA, Mont. - A section of Southside Road as large as a truck fell away some time on April 19, adding to a long list of roads around Missoula County damaged by one of the wettest winter seasons on record. The subsequent closure of the section of road could impact what happens next in the already drenched and damaged road system in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains. The collapsed road sits just 2 miles from Frenchtown on the opposite side of the Clark Fork River. To reach Southside Road from the east requires miles of backroad travel from Highway 12 or to cross a bridge just west of Missoula. The next bridge to the north is in Alberton. It's lined with homes and ranches for those who enjoy life away from the bustle of the valley floor. The Ninemile Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service will be responsible for fixing the stretch of the road, but Missoula County officials are lamenting their backup plan for damaged roads in the area they have to fix soon.
"With all the problems on Big Flat Road, Southside Road has always been our backup access to that Deep Creek area," says Missoula County engineer Erik Dickson. Big Flat and Deep Creek roads have had their own issues since March. Heavy rains and surging water from Deep Creek cut into roadbed and began to crack road shoulders. These are a few of almost a dozen erosion problems that we reported at the end of March, including another weak area on Southside Road. For now Dickson says they are marking the dangerous areas and waiting to make repairs until the ground dries up in a couple of months. "If we try to do anything this spring before everything dries out," he says, "we may not be doing a lot of good." Dickson says in the 15 years he's worked for Missoula County he's never seen so many road failures in such a short time span. Now all eyes are on Big Flat Road. There's a much higher risk that the people who live there face getting cut off if more damage occurs. The repairs that have to be made to the crumbling and shifting roads are taking other things out of the budget. Dickson says in order to stay on top of scheduled maintenance projects and repair the new damage they were forced to take that repair money from another part of the budget. That cut turned out to be the dust abatement program, as announced on the county website and mailed to residents along the 80 miles of road that the county treats in the summer. Dickson says their discussion about where to make the cuts was "fairly short." Other parts of the state are doing much better than rural Missoula County, but there's a long way to go in the spring season.