UPPER TENMILE — As Don Clark bumps up Rimini Road in a City of Helena truck, he scans the mountainous slopes on either side and shakes his head. Runoff from high above these slopes is the main source of drinking water for 30,000 Helena residents.
“It’s a time bomb,” says Clark, who is the city’s water and wastewater treatment superintendent. “All it’ll take is one fire and we lose trees. That’ll release sediments loaded with all sorts of heavy metals from the old mines.
“We could lose our ability to treat water out here for five years. We’re on borrowed time.”
It’s a threat that’s been building from decades of fire suppression. Most of the mountainsides in the Upper Tenmile drainage are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, with private property on the flats along Tenmile Creek, including the town of Rimini.
It was here in the late 1800s that the Helena Water Works Company constructed a wooden diversion and delivery system to bring municipal water into Helena. The city bought the system in 1911.
Chances are a wildfire would destroy the 4.8 miles of wooden flumes and trestles, not to mention many of the living and dead lodgepole pines that cover the slopes today.
And, as has happened elsewhere with large fires, when the trees are gone the soils erode, sometimes with massive debris flows. Since the Upper Tenmile drainage was heavily mined, chances are toxic mine tailings would be part of that debris flow and land into Tenmile Creek, making the water untreatable by clogging filters at the Tenmile Water Treatment Plant downstream.
Clark and City Manager Ron Alles are quick to note that they have a backup water supply from the Missouri River. It’s much more expensive than the gravity-fed Tenmile source, but they could limp along with significant water-use restrictions during the summer months if they temporarily lose their Tenmile water.
Still, both are frustrated with the looming wildfire threat and their inability to do much about it. The city has spent about $415,000 — three quarters of it from federal grants — to remove trees on city and private property on either side of the flume, creating a 432-foot buffer zone in some places.
But most of the watershed is on the Helena National Forest, and any timber removal or other mitigation effort must either be done in conjunction with or approved by Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan.
Collaboration and delays
They had hope in 2008, when at the request of Riordan, the city pulled together a diverse group, known as the Tenmile Watershed Collaborative Committee, to develop recommendations to address issues in the watershed.
With the aid of facilitator Brian Kahn, they met weekly to reach consensus on six goals to protect and promote restoration of the watershed.
“We know that fire will occur up there; we want to do work beforehand to protect our watershed, so when the fire occurs we can lessen the impact and make it a less intense fire,” Alles said.
The recommendations were approved by the city commission and presented to Riordan on July 8, 2009.
Little progress has been made since then.
“We understand the Forest Service doesn’t have millions sitting around to mitigate the impacts, but it just feels like we’ve been kind of pushed aside all the time,” Alles said this week. “I can’t help but think that the water supply to 30,000 people would be a priority. We’ve trying to get answers on where we rank as a priority.”
They thought their worst fears would be realized in 2009, when a fire broke out to the west on MacDonald Pass. Fire experts cautioned that with the right conditions, the blaze would race from the Pass into the Tenmile drainage, jump into Colorado Gulch and burn onto Mount Helena.
They got lucky, though, when gusty winds pushed the fire downhill while it tried to act in typical fire behavior and run uphill. That kept the fire contained to only a few hundred acres.
They thought the Forest Service might take some action in 2011, after a report showed the Helena National Forest held the dubious distinction of having the worst watershed conditions of all national forests and grasslands in Montana and portions of Idaho and the Dakotas, based in part on historic mining and logging.
Forest officials were told to prioritize watersheds for restoration and develop an action plan. Riordan decided to focus on Upper Tenmile Creek, putting together a 10-year, $5.4 million plan that was supposed to begin with a fuels reduction program last year.
But other than the removal of dead trees along Rimini Road and near the Moose Creek campground and cabin, there hasn’t been a lot of work accomplished.
Riordan said the reason for the delay in getting work done on the ground is a bit complicated and bureaucratic, but they hope to have a proposed course of action ready to send out for public comment by late fall or early winter 2013.
It will take a few at least a year or more after that to complete the process, he added, meaning it’s unlikely that any significant work will be done on Forest Service lands in Tenmile until at least 2015.
“If we get the proposal out we still have to go through our analysis, public scoping comments, get a draft written and circulated, collect comments and get a final decision out,” Riordan said. “I know everything is a priority and with limited resources you just have to work around those things.”
He said the delay stretches back to problems with the 25-year-old Forest Plan, an overarching document on how to manage the Helena National Forest. Part of the plan covers big game habitat, and the Helena Forest was found to be out of compliance with the Forest Plan on hiding cover for elk.
Any tree removal would push them further out of compliance, and numerous timber projects were halted by a federal court judge based on the elk hiding cover issue.
So forest managers decided the standard was outdated and are working on changing it. To do so, they’ve inserted amendments into both the Blackfoot and Continental Divide travel plans that would make it easier to comply by dropping the elk hiding cover requirements.
They’ve been working on both travel plans for about 13 years, and hope to have a final decision this year on both.
Riordan said they also received significant funding to implement projects in the “Crown of the Continent” on the Lincoln Ranger District, and that’s taking a lot of their resources.
“I understand their frustrations,” he added. “We’re trying to just get things figured out and we are making progress.”
It’s disheartening for city officials, as well as those who put in the time on the committee, to listen to the federal agency’s gears slowly grind.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, was a committee member. Known for filing lawsuits to ensure the Forest Service follows its rules — most recently on elk hiding cover — Garrity said he felt good about the recommendations and signed off on them.
“We thought this was a good proposal and the Forest Service, who was part of this, promised to follow through on it,” Garrity said. “But I haven’t participated in another since they haven’t moved forward on our recommendations.”
He noted, with a hint of sarcasm, that the Helena Forest moved pretty quickly in the past few years to removed dead trees alongside its roads, with most of that timber being sold.
“I think this shows that ultimately they just want to get the cut out (log and sell timber) rather than work on the watershed,” Garrity said. “When they want to do something they can do it fast.”
Alles said a study by Mark Finney, a fire researcher for the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, shows that they only need to treat 20 to 40 percent of the watershed to have meaningful fire mitigation.
He hopes the city will continue to work with the Forest Service to pro-actively address the threat of a large wild-fire in the watershed, even if it’s just by talking small steps.
In the meantime, however, they’ll plan for post-fire mitigation.
Back in the truck, Clark and coworker Jason Fladland point out as they drive along Rimini Road the areas where the city has intake valves. If a wildfire heavily damages one of the side drainages, they can turn off a headgate to keep debris from flowing into the Tenmile plant. If they have to, they can turn off all of them.
That’s prompted the city to consider what improvements are necessary at the Missouri River water treatment plant in case it becomes the sole source of city water for an extended length of time. Alles said they’ve also asked the public works department to budget funds to put a plan together for extreme fire scenarios.
“We have to have a plan on what to do if 50 percent of our watershed burns,” he said. “I want us to know in advance if, given different scenarios, what we will do. My hope is that document will sit on a shelf and we’ll never have to use it, but I’d just like to have it.”
The city also is putting away money to use in the next few years to do additional mitigation work around their two reservoirs in the watershed and the flumes.
“But we need to partner with the Forest Service,” Alles said.
That sentiment is echoed by Riordan.
“This will be an expensive undertaking and people need to understand that we need partners,” Riordan said. “You can’t look at one source to get it all done.”
But talk of a partnership is easy. Getting the boots on the ground sometimes isn’t.
“I would like better communication with the Forest Service,” Alles said. “It’s like we are trying to ini-tiate the conversation but I don’t feel I have been getting timely information.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com
Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron