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Project underway to reduce wildfire fuel around Basin Creek Reservoir

Tree thinning
Posted at 8:28 PM, Dec 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-16 13:33:14-05

Around the Basin Creek Reservoir, rotten, fallen, and dead trees line the source of drinking water for Butte.

The Basin Creek 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 Jim Keenan, the Butte-Silver Bow Water Utility Chief Operator.

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.

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

A $50,000 hazardous fuels grant was given toward the project through the DNRC provided that Butte-Silver Bow puts up 25 percent, which brings the project total up $62,500.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation 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 is being treated to reduce wildfire fuel.