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Ice-breaking at the Black Eagle Dam

Black Eagle Dam and Missouri River in Great Falls, Montana
Breaking ice at the Black Eagle Dam
Ice at the Black Eagle Dam
Hydro O & M superintendent Jerry Gray
Black Eagle Dam
Posted at 3:32 PM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 17:32:09-05

GREAT FALLS — When the weather gets cold, ice can become a problem for NorthWestern Energy at the Black Eagle Dam in Great Falls.

"Our goal is to keep the ice cap that forms on the river from pushing against the dam,” said Hydro O & M superintendent Jerry Gray.

Gray said breaking away the ice isn't always easy and isn't a desirable task. In his words, you just have to grin and bear it.

“You bundle up with some good overalls, some good gloves, and take frequent breaks as needed,” Gray explained. "In weather like this where it's not extremely cold we can use the crane to break up the big pieces. Then we go along with steel poles with icepicks on the end and break up the smaller pieces. When it's extremely cold, 20 below and colder, we have to do it all by hand with ice poles."

ice black eagle dam.jpg
Icy Missouri River and Black Eagle Dam

On a relatively mild day with plenty of sunshine to help, breaking up the ice can take about two hours.

"This dam is steel and flash board, so if you don't keep the ice away the ice can attach to the boards and remove them or push them down stream. It can also damage the steel,” said Gray.

While the ice on the backside of the dam is the biggest concern, standing on Black Eagle Island, as well as from the River's Edge Trail, you can see giant chunks of ice that have formed on the front side of the dam. Those have to be addressed occasionally, too.

"They can pull on the dam, so we get down with the ice picks and we'll loosen those up until they fall,” Gray said.

Keeping the dam intact and working is important. It produces 21 megawatts of power, something Gray pointed out is especially important in the winter as people use that to power their heat sources to stay warm.