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Thirsty users vie for Butte's Silver Lake water

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There are few things more western than drinking whiskey or fighting over water.

More than one group has its eye on the right to use the water in Silver Lake, about 40 miles west of Butte. Although Butte’s water rights, which include the Silver Lake system, are about as clear as mud, it appears that there is enough water for everyone at this stage.

Bryan Gartland, the state water bureau's water resource manager, says Butte is "very fortunate" because it has a lot of water to work with. 

Even so, some want it all for Butte, and there are those who want at least some of it for Warm Springs Creek.

As far back as 2006, Butte-Silver Bow County filed with the state to alter the county’s water right to allow 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to flow from Silver Lake through Warm Springs Creek, hit the Clark Fork River, and wend its way to Gold Creek, between Garrison and Jens.

But putting the lake water into Warm Springs Creek for that flow never took place until 2017. That’s when NRD paid the county $20,466 for two weeks of pumping the nearly pristine, cold water down the hatch into Warm Springs Creek. Trout Unlimited provided technical assistance. The money came from the state's settlement with Atlantic Richfield Company over the lost resource.

The project sent 32 cfs or about 16 million gallons each day for two weeks. The water shot down from Myer’s Dam, off Montana Highway 1, into lower Warm Springs Creek and beyond into the thirsty Clark Fork River.

That year was a low water year, and Jason Lindstrom, Fish, Wildlife and Parks fish biologist, says the two-week project visibly improved flows in lower Warm Springs Creek and in the upper end of the river.

The water could have an impact on the upper Clark Fork for fish all the way to Gold Creek, since the water right extends that far, says Lindstrom.

Casey Hackathorn, Trout Unlimited program manager, said that due to irrigation, the upper Clark Fork is routinely dewatered.

“It’s a huge factor for the fishery,” Hackathorn said. “It’s one of the main reasons, besides the contamination, that the fishery lags behind where it should be.”

But at least some members of the Butte-based community group Restore Our Creek Coalition don’t want water to go to Warm Springs Creek.

Ed Simonich, who unveiled Restore Our Creek’s vision for the middle of town before the Environmental Protection Agency in December 2016, says he wants the water to go to Texas Avenue.

That’s where Restore Our Creek Coalition continues to push for a constructed upper Silver Bow Creek to begin. That spot would put it just south of the active mining operation and as close to the actual headwaters, on the East Ridge north of Montana Resources, as anyone can currently get.

So far, Atlantic Richfield Company has offered up a 120-acre park with a host of amenities from George to beyond South Montana streets. But no publicly disclosed plan includes such a creek.

Not everyone who’s a part of Restore Our Creek agrees that Silver Lake water should land at Texas Avenue.

Joe Griffin, retired hydrogeologist and Restore Our Creek member, says sending that water back to Butte would be “robbing a critical stream for an artificial one.”

Why should it matter?

Bull trout are one reason. Upper Warm Springs Creek is one place where those fish, who must have cold, clean water, still live. According to an EPA study of the species, 81 percent of bull trout populations are in trouble.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife have listed bull trout as threatened, which is one step away from endangered.

The situation now

Harley Harris, NRD attorney, held a meeting with Dave Palmer, the county’s chief executive on Jan. 18.

No definite plan has been made yet on even a short-term test run, much less a long-term contract, Harris says. The state and the county discussed the possibility of another test in the summer, Harris says. Palmer did not return a request for comment.

But if the NRD can make its longstanding wish come true on getting water into Warm Springs Creek, then the state would likely want water only during low flow periods. That could likely limit the months when the NRD wants the water possibly to three months out of the year, Harris says.

But Simonich says that is when “everybody wants water,” including ranchers. He also worries about the future needs for water.

“Water is a prime commodity. I hate to see Butte-Silver Bow sell any water rights,” he said.

There are also other users on the system: REC Silicon, the Copper Mountain Youth Park, and Montana Craft Malt, a project started by the late Ron Ueland. But the largest of them all is Montana Resources.

MR’s current contract with the county states that MR pays $238,000 a year and can receive up to one million gallons a day. Right now, MR uses about 800,000 gallons of Silver Lake water a day, says Mark Thompson, MR’s vice president for environmental affairs.

But MR is allowed seven million gallons of water a day for what Thompson calls “a planned upset” and 18 million gallons for an unplanned one.

Mollie Maffei, county attorney, said through email that Butte has the right to pipeline 27.9 cfs of Silver Lake water for all of those purposes, plus “BSB’s instream flow right for Silver Bow Creek.”

Some flow rights were changed in 2006 “to provide water to NorthWestern Energy and instream flow in Warm Springs Creek to the upper Clark Fork River,” she said.

But Maffei says the 40 cfs made available through that change are not inviolate.

“The water rights can also be used for other permitted purposes, such as delivering industrial water to users in Butte or instream flow in Silver Bow Creek,” she said in her emailed message.

Westslope cutthroat trout

Bull trout aren’t the only fish in the river that need help. Native westslope cutthroat trout are impacted by the problems in the upper Clark Fork.

Warm temperatures also trouble the Clark Fork during the warm summer months, making it impossible for fish to travel.

Both westslope cutthroat and bull trout need the coldest of cold water — and the purest — to survive.

Simonich says water could be piped to Texas Avenue and the water would eventually make it to the Clark Fork River.

But Lindstrom says the quality of the water would be “much worse” by the time it got to the Clark Fork. The water would warm up if it ran through Silver Bow Creek and Warm Springs Ponds system. But not so if the water goes through Warm Springs Creek.

“Warm Springs Creek is a big drainage with a lot of cold water. By adding more cold water, it gets you a lot colder water delivered to the Clark Fork,” Lindstrom said.

What about Berkeley Pit water?

The coalition has long had an eye on Berkeley Pit water for the group's long-hoped-for creek. 

But Thompson said last month MR will likely use much of the treated mine waste water for the mine workings. The impending pilot project is still expected to begin in just a few months.

That doesn't leave too many options for Restore Our Creek Coalition to have enough water to build an actual stream, if the group gets the creek at all.

Joe Griffin

Joe Griffin, a retired hydrogeologist for and a member of Restore Our Creek, holds a map detailing the areas along Warm Springs creek that have been restored. 

As for the NRD, the agency must push on to seek Warm Springs Creek water. Identifying Silver Lake water for use to augment flow in Warm Springs Creek is in NRD's guiding documents signed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2013.

Griffin, who has studied and worked on the entire upper Clark Fork watershed for a large portion of his career, says there is only one other stream, Rock Creek, on the upper Clark Fork where threatened bull trout live. 

"It would be the best and highest use. Warm Springs Creek is a huge asset for the state. One of the last bull trout habitat in the state and a highly functional stream," he said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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