Wildfire season posing risk to Helena watershed

Helena Water Treatment Superintendent Don Clark stands in front of Beaver Creek

A long running wildfire season leads to many concerns outside the immediate effects of the fires themselves.

For instance, The city of Helena has serious concerns for its water supply.

The water flowing down Beaver Creek tumbles between large boulders before collecting in a small pond above a concrete headgate. The creek lies up Rimini road, West of Helena, and it’s one of the bigger tributaries of the Ten Mile watershed—the Capitol City’s primary water source.

This part of the stream is lined by the green leaves of bushes and healthy trees.

“You can see a very lush, nice looking area, and that’s the way we want to try and keep it,” said Helena’s Water Treatment Superintendent Don Clark.
Don Clark is Helena’s Water Treatment Superintendent.

He faces many challenges keeping the water of the Ten Mile Watershed clean. Construction crews work to remove decades of mining pollution. The area is an EPA Superfund site. There can be problems from erosion, the condition of infrastructure.

Right now, Clark worries about forest fires. Out of his long list of concerns, he puts fire right at the top.

“It’s our number one concern It’s something we worry about every year,” he said.

No fires have affected the area yet this year, but it’s possible. Moving down from Beaver Creek, one quickly sees an area primed for a wildfire. Pine Beetle killed trees cover the hillsides around the tributaries Clark points out in some areas you can easily count the living trees. It’s all wildfire fuel and even when all of those tributaries come together to form the full Ten Mile creek—it’s not very big. Depending on how a fire burns through, unmanageable amounts of sediment could wash into the stream.

“Which could virtually shut down the treatment plant and make the water in this watershed not even usable,” Clark said.

If that happens, it could last for years.

“Some communities in Colorado where they’ve had this happen, it’s taken up to 5 years before the water was usable again,” he said.

If the Ten Mile watershed closed down, the city would draw water from the Missouri River—but it’s much more expensive to do so. Helena  is working with the US Forest Service and other partners to try to mitigate wildfire risk up the watershed however possible.

But there will always be some risk.

“The funding just isn’t there and just it would be the logistics of doing something that would give you 100 percent assurance that would protect your source water is just, it’s not possible,” He said.

Instead, whenever Don Clark hears about a fire in the area, he immediately hopes it’s nowhere near Ten Mile creek.

The job of protecting the watershed never stops.

“It’s everchanging, there’s things that are always going on in the watershed that could negatively impact your source waters. so yeah, you can’t ever let up on it,” Clark said.


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