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Project to reduce wildfire fuel around Basin Creek Reservoir near Butte

Tree thinning
Posted at 12:22 PM, Dec 16, 2021

BUTTE — Rotten, fallen, and dead trees line the source of drinking water for Butte around the Basin Creek Reservoir.

The watershed has been devastated by the impact of a mountain pine beetle outbreak that caused the death of thousands of mature bull pine trees.

"The condition of the watershed has become more and more deteriorated over time to the point where the fuel situation in the watershed is a dire threat to the future of this water supply," said Butte-Silver Bow Water Utility Chief Operator Jim Keenan.

The Basin Creek Reservoir makes up 60% of Butte’s potable water supply on a decent water year.

If a wildfire were to start in the watershed, the slopes and hillsides would be unstable. Snow runoff or rain could cause dirt, ash, and debris to end up in the reservoir.

This could block the water treatment pipes.

Another concern would be the treatability of the water.

The treatment plant was built to gravity flow water through the treatment process without pumps. It was also built to treat a very pristine water supply with very little pre-treatment.

"Anything that really impacted the quality of this water would probably make our new treatment plant unusable," said Keenan.

The overgrown forest around the watershed would have to be thinned, standing and fallen dead trees would be removed, gathered into piles and burned to protect the source of Butte’s drinking water.

A $50,000 hazardous fuels grant was given toward the project through the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) provided that Butte-Silver Bow puts up 25%, which brings the project total up to $62,500.

The DNRC action plan identified Basin Creek Reservoir as high risk due to the potential contamination of Butte’s main water source.

"You have a local community, you have drinking water — and it’s a cool story, I mean you’re protecting Butte’s water and then improving forest health," said Sam Whitney, Montana DNRC Service forester.

The first 16 acres to the east of the watershed are being treated to reduce wildfire fuel.