Helena residents got a taste of what losing the municipal water supply on Ten Mile Creek would be like, and they didn’t like it.
The city took the mountain creek, which supplies most of Helena's drinking water, offline beginning in October for repairs to the water treatment facility that included a new liner on the reservoir and install a new cover. A few other projects were completed also.
Once the city switched from Ten Mile Creek to using water from the Missouri River, the complaints about taste and smell were fast in coming. The work on Ten Mile Creek facility is completed and its water is again flowing through city pipes.
However, the potential for loss of the mountain creek’s water has been an ongoing concern and produced legal battles that focused on timber thinning and removal to reduce the danger of wildfire.
The most recent legal challenges ended with the plaintiffs withdrew their objections to the Forest Service’s plan for an area near where the city has its water treatment, transport and storage facilities.
And the city of Helena has recently created a collaborative committee to prepare recommendations for the Forest Service on projects in the drainage.
The Forest Service’s proposed work calls for commercial and noncommercial logging and prescribed burning in the upper portions of the Ten Mile drainage.
The area includes about 24,000 acres of Forest Service lands and 1,000 acres of BLM lands, of which about 8,500 would go into a timber sale.
Two environmental groups sued to challenge the 300-acre Red Mountain Flume Chessman Reservoir timber project in federal court but in late September agreed to dismiss their case.
Fire breaks on 158 acres near Chessman Reservoir were also a part of the plan.
The court challenge by the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council claimed the proposed project threatened protected species and needed a more thorough environmental analysis.
The two groups saw the chance of wildfire as low in the area.
The end of this court action came after federal Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula said in August that the groups were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case while also denying a temporary halt to the project.
Helena City Manager Ron Alles has been among the voices warning of the consequences to the city’s water supply should wildfire sweep through the drainage.
“I can’t overstate the importance of this project as it relates to that water supply,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to get water to 30,000 residents.”
With the litigation now settled, logging has started and is expected to continue.
The city is moving ahead with asking the Forest Service for a land trade to secure ownership of parcels on which it has portions of the city’s water treatment plant.