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Helena exploring groundwater supply
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Helena exploring groundwater supply

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The Missouri River Water Treatment Plant is pictured in this file photo from 2016. 

Helena contracted to drill wells near one of its water treatment plants to explore the groundwater supply ahead of a water rights deadline.

The city commission approved the contract bid Monday to drill three test wells near the Missouri River Water Treatment Plant, which briefly shut down for repairs early this month. It would be a step toward making use of Helena’s water rights to the aquifer and preventing them from expiring at the end of 2025.

“The importance of this project came to fruition this year because of the drought,” Public Works Director Ryan Leland said to the commission. “This is another option to use fairly inexpensive water to be able to supplement our capacity and our water supply.”

Leland said the city would not have to treat the groundwater besides chlorination and it could serve as a backup for the city’s two treatment plants. He said the smaller, exploratory wells would look for a good spot to access the aquifer and the city aims to complete production wells around 2024.

Helena has groundwater rights to over 7,000 acre-feet a year from a deep aquifer, different from the one used by domestic wells, according to Leland. (An acre-foot is the amount to cover one acre in one foot of water.)

The Montana Board of Natural Resources and Conservation granted Helena’s water reservation in 1992, according to the commission cover sheet. The reservation must be perfected by the end of 2025, which Leland said means putting it to beneficial use, or it expires.

The reservation allows over 10 million gallons per day for June through August and 5 million gallons per day for September to May, according to the cover sheet. That compares to typical daily maximum use of over 15 million and over 9 million gallons for those periods, respectively.

The city has budgeted for this project for two years, according to Leland, before this summer’s drought and water restrictions. He said it had tried some wells in the 1990s but the project got sidelined in the budget. City officials have said Helena is taking measures to protect its water supply.

"We will be making major moves toward improving our water systems, which is long overdue," City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk said. "The past summer is a good example of why the city needs to be making these investments."

Leland said the city first requested bids for the wells contract last April and received one for about $460,000 from Holt Services in Washington state. The city re-bid the contract in July and awarded it to the only bid, O’Keefe Drilling Company Inc. in Butte, for a total of $435,500, according to the cover sheet.

Depending on what the exploratory wells find over winter, Leland said the city could start on production wells next year. He said Helena’s water system currently draws around 4% of total usage from a different aquifer, along with irrigation wells for parkland.

The city utilities fund would pay for the wells, Leland said, without federal money like from the American Rescue Plan Act. Helena’s water grant application for state-allocated ARPA money said it prioritized Ten Mile Water Treatment Plant, which supplies 85% of city water.

Leland said Ten Mile is in greater need of improvements, while the Missouri River plant is generally running well besides a leak early this month.

The Missouri River plant shut down for about 24 hours, Aug. 31 to Sept. 1, to repair the leak in the pipe bringing untreated water into the facility. The city also plans to replace the plant’s filters, which Leland said would hopefully be done next spring.

Staff writer Nolan Lister contributed to this story.

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