Water rights in the West have been fought over for decades and the case involving the City of Helena’s main source of residential water is no different.

It was in 1864 that the Helena Water Works Company first acquired the rights to 225 “miner’s inches” of water from Tenmile Creek, which sits west of Helena high on the Continental Divide.

A miner’s inch is a historical measurement of flows, equal to about 11.22 gallons per minute (gpm).

The 1864 water right was for 2,524 gpm. A year later, the water company bought another 325 miner’s inches — 3,646 gpm — for a total of 6,170 gpm. That provides about 8 million gallons per day for city residents.

The city of Helena bought the water company’s system from its eastern investors in 1911, and its two rights are “senior rights,” which means they have first dibs on the water. Anything they don’t use can be pulled from the creek by the next-in-line water rights owners.

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In this case, the late Frank Schatz, a longtime Helena valley rancher, held the third water right. Next in line is local developer Andy Skinner, who said he’s one of a group of people who use the water for irrigation.

The city also acquired additional water rights between 1885 and 1952 from streams in the Tenmile watershed, upstream of the creek. That water was diverted into either the Chessman or Scott reservoirs, perched high on the Continental Divide above Tenmile Creek. It was released during the summer when the demand for water was high yet the quantity of water in the stream was low. It was a gravity-fed system, fairly inexpensive to operate and maintain.

By 1960, the Tenmile sources couldn’t satisfy the city’s demand, so it contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation for water from the Missouri River. The city still uses that as a supplemental source during peak demand months in the summer, but unlike the free water from Tenmile, it pays the BOR about $15 per acre foot. In fiscal 2011, that amounted to $44,500 for 2,944 acre feet, or 4 cents per gallon.

It also cost the city about $200,000 last year in electricity to pump that water uphill from the Missouri, according to John Rundquist, Helena’s public works director. 

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