Fort Peck Dam

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been operating Fort Peck Dam since 1940. Stretching across the upper Missouri River in northeastern Montana, it is the furthest upstream of six dam and reservoir projects built on the mainstem of the upper Missouri River.  As part of a system of federal and private levees, these and other dams on the river’s tributaries reduce flood risks for urban and agricultural property and lives throughout the Missouri River watershed. When not operating to reduce flood impacts, USACE manages this mainstem system of dams to balance hydropower generation, water supply, water quality, irrigation, fish and wildlife conservation, navigation, and recreation benefits. 

The River Basin Balancer Game offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality, for which many USACE reservoirs are authorized and constructed. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin.

Description

Location: Fort Peck, MT Mile 1771.5

Fort Peck Lake is 134 miles long, with over 1,500 miles of shoreline. The dam, just west of U.S. Interstate 2 and south of Glasgow, MT,  consists of an earthen embankment, an outlet tunnel for releasing stored water, two powerhouses, and 16 gates on a concrete-lined spillway to the west of the dam. During normal operations, USACE releases water through the powerhouse to generate power and balance reservoir levels for other uses. As operations shift to reducing flood risks during periods of high runoff, water also is released through the outlet tunnel and, if needed, USACE dam operators can releases more water through the spillway gates.

This graphic illustrates the how the water storage capacity of the six upper Missouri River dams compares among that of other USACE reservoirs in the continental United States
In 2011, dam operators used Fort Peck Dam’s 16 vertical lift gates, each measuring 40-feet wide by 25-feet high, to help manage water releases in the upper Missouri River and reduce flooding to downstream communities.

Operating for many benefits

Fort Peck Dam and Fort Peck Lake provide many benefits to the local and regional public and to the nation. These include reducing the loss of life and property damage from floods, producing hydropower, and providing water intakes for municipal and industrial uses. The storage and release of water also benefits recreation, irrigation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and commercial navigation. USACE began construction of the first powerhouse in 1941 but it was not completed until 1951 due to shortages of supplies and materials during World War II. After USACE completed the second powerhouse in 1961, the dam produces an average 1.1 billion kilowatt hours a year, or enough power to supply a town of 100,000 people.

The public lands and waters of also provide a wide variety of recreational activities, such as fishing, boating, and camping. USACE and several partners (federal, tribal, state, county, and city) operate campgrounds, parks, and marinas on the lake.

Recreation

The vast size of Fort Peck Lake and its remoteness from major population centers provide a variety of high quality outdoor experiences. Popular activities include camping, boating, fishing, hunting, sight-seeing, picnicking, biking, hiking, photography, watching wildlife and just relaxing.

So many miles of pristine shoreline serve as a haven for those wishing to get away from the stresses of modern life. There are 27 recreation areas located around the reservoir. The areas near and around the dam offer paved roads, electricity, showers, and playgrounds while facilities around the rest of the lake are more primitive with gravel roads, picnic tables and vault toilets. Access roads to many of the remote areas may be impassable in inclement weather.

Additional information about nearby activities, camping, day use, and reservations are available here.

The concrete spillway, 820 feet wide at the top, under construction at Fort Peck Dam.
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  • From Glasgow, MT, take Highway 24 south 17 miles to Fort Peck.
  • From Nashua, MT take Highway 117 south 12 miles to Fort Peck

Fort Peck Lake enjoys nationwide recognition as a hot spot for walleye fishing. The lake also offers excellent fishing for sauger, smallmouth bass, lake trout, chinook salmon and northern pike. The introduction of cisco as a forage fish in 1983 proved successful and has increased both the size and number of game fish.

The area around the lake and the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge provide superb hunting of deer, elk, big horn sheep, and prong horn. The Missouri River Breaks are known for producing large elk and other game animals.

Additional information on fishing and hunting can be obtained by contacting the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.

Downstream Campground is located just below Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. Recreation enthusiasts and sportsmen enjoy the beauty of Fort Peck Lake's 1,500 miles of shoreline. A variety of high quality outdoor activities are available, including camping, boating, fishing, hunting, sightseeing and wildlife viewing.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge extends 125 airline miles up the Missouri River from Fort Peck Dam in north-central Montana, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge contains approximately 1,100,000 acres, including the 245,000-acre Fort Peck Reservoir. The refuge provides a rare opportunity to experience wild lands and wildlife in a natural setting. Visitors to the Refuge can enjoy Refuge wildlife and scenic grandeur in nearly the same surroundings as encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The Refuge includes native prairies, forested coulees, river bottoms, and badlands so often portrayed in the paintings of Charlie Russell, the colorful western artist for whom the refuge is named.

The Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument and National Wild and Scenic River contain a spectacular array of biological, geological, and historical objects of interest. From Fort Benton upstream into the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument spans 149 miles river that has been preserved in a natural free-flowing state remaining largely unchanged in the nearly 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey. The Breaks country, and portions of Arrow Creek, Antelope Creek and the Judith River produce a range of wildlife from elk to coyotes to big horn sheep. In 1976, Congress designated the Missouri River segment and corridor in this area a National Wild and Scenic River (Public Law 94-486, 90 Stat. 2327). The monument also encompasses segments of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Cow Creek Island Area of Critical Environmental Concern.*
*Presidential Proclamation.

Fort Peck Interpretive Center, a cooperative effort between USACE and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, includes exhibits of the wildlife of the C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, paleontology (including a cast of the Tyrannosaurus Rex known as Peck’s Rex), Fort Peck Dam construction history, boomtowns, and homesteading. The center also showcases the two largest aquariums in Montana, displaying native and game fish of Fort Peck Lake and the Missouri River.

The center’s interpretive programs, theater presentations, amphitheater programs and nature hikes covering a variety of topics are presented weekly throughout the summer.

The center is connected to the Kiwanis Park Day Use Area and the Downstream Campground by a network of more than 3 miles of paved nature trails. The trails, popular for birding and wildlife viewing, wind along the Missouri River and surrounding wooded area. Other amenities in this area include three fishing ponds, playground equipment, horseshoe pits, a volleyball court, basketball court, picnic tables and picnic shelters.

Visitor Center Hours:  Call (406) 526-3493 or (406) 526-3411 for current hours and to coordinate visits for groups of 20 or more people.

Call (406) 526-3493 or (406) 526-3411 for more information or visit our FB page @USACEFortPeck

Reducing Flood Risk

During normal operations, USACE releases up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) (one cubic foot of water is equal to 7.5 gallons). The two outlet tunnels can release an additional 45,000 cfs. The spillway was designed to additionally release up to 250,000 cfs.

For perspective, the largest release of water from Fort Peck Dam as a result of flooding was a combined 65,900 cfs from the powerhouse and spillway in 2011. It is important to understand that the dam is designed to release up to 310,000 cfs when necessary and that dams do not eliminate flood risk.

Dam safety inspectors walk the earthen embankment of Fort Peck Dam.
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As part of its Dam Safety Program, Omaha District conducts detailed engineering analyses to ensure its dams are safe and that risks to the public, property, and the environment are minimized to the extent possible. Dam safety standards and practices are continually updated to improve the maintenance and operation of dams to ensure they can safely serve their original purposes. In addition, dam safety engineers across federal and state agencies share information as they learn about the performance of flood risk reduction structures built over many decades. They now use more precise, modern technologies and apply up-to-date science to reduce flood risk more effectively. Fort Peck Dam is operating as designed but in the unlikely case of uncontrolled reservoir releases, significant consequences could impact downstream populations, including numerous urban centers along the Missouri River. 

Omaha District completed several risk reduction actions at Fort Peck Dam after the flooding of 2011.  These include the installation of additional drains through the dam’s foundation and additional instrumentation to enhance foundation monitoring. Repairs also were made to the spillway to improve its resiliency during future flood events.

Visit the National Inventory of Dams to learn more about how dams work and Fort Peck Dam risk assessments.

History

Fort Peck Dam is the first dam built in the upper Missouri River Basin. The area surrounding Fort Peck was first charted by Lewis and Clark in 1804, and the pristine natural condition of the river and surrounding area awed the renowned explorers.

The Old Fort Peck trading post was built in 1867 on a narrow ledge of shale about 35 feet above the river, its rear wall abutting the hillside. The front of the stockade was so close to the ledge that it was an effective steamboat landing for sternwheelers that made frequent trips upstream. But the site of the old stockade was lost to the river near the turn of the century.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Fort Peck project in 1933, thousands of people from all over the country migrated to Montana during the midst of the Great Depression in hopes of earning a living. More than 7,000 men and women signed on to work on the dam in 1934 and 1935. Employment peaked at nearly 11,000 dam workers in 1936, and thousands more swarmed to Montana to set up businesses including food markets, hardware stores, butcher shops, general stores, saloons and brothels. More than eighteen boomtowns sprang up in the vicinity, and the "wild west" was reborn as a tiny and obscure township swelled from a population of a few hundred to nearly 40,000 people.

Maj. Clark C. Kittrell, who served as Corps of Engineers deputy district engineer at Fort Peck from 1933 to 1937 and as the district engineer from 1937 to 1940, defined the complexity of the mission: "No engineering job of this magnitude had ever been attempted with so short a time for planning."

New techniques had to be learned and developed as rapidly as ingenuity would allow. Countless technical problems arose and were solved. A shipyard, created on site, quickly turned out the "Fort Peck Navy," which would dredge the river bottom and pump the slurry that formed the dam. Workers overcame a massive slide in 1938, a year after closure was made, and with completion of the dam in sight. The last load of material was dumped in October 1940, almost seven years to the day after FDR’s authorization.

The legacy that is Fort Peck provides visitors a fascinating look into yesteryear. The town of Fort Peck, now an independent municipality, is a rare treasure. Neither progress nor modernization can erase the etchings of time that allow visitors a glimpse back at another era.

Many of the early buildings - some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Building - still stand, symbols of a distant past, with an integrity that allows them to function yet today.