Montana Public Radio

Deal With Mining Company Would Add More Water To Butte's Creeks

Dec 20, 2019

A copper mining company and Butte-Silver Bow county agreed this week to a plan to pump more cold, clean water into local creeks. While the company and county call the deal a win-win, some are concerned about the downstream impacts.

Butte-Silver Bow has owned and operated the Silver Lake Water System since the 1990s, and the cold, clean water in it is a hot commodity. In the last few years, the state has purchased Silver Lake water to boost flows and lower temperatures in the Upper Clark Fork River and some of its tributaries. But now, more of that water could be headed back uphill to Butte.

On Wednesday night, Butte-Silver Bow’s council of commissioners unanimously approved an agreement to increase the amount of Silver Lake water that can be pumped, piped, and put directly into the creeks flowing through the heart of town.

Jon Sesso, Butte’s Superfund coordinator, is one of the main architects of this agreement.

"We have gotten a lot of input from our citizenry that the Blacktail Creek and Silver Bow Creek are important assets in our community. And we want to make sure that among all the customers that we solicit and have, one of them is the creeks that run through our county."

Under the terms of the new deal, up to 7 million gallons of water per day will be delivered to Butte’s headwater streams to help increase flow.

Montana Resources is picking up the tab. The mining company has agreed to pay Butte-Silver Bow a $300,000 hook-up fee; $178,000 per year for the water, plus the cost of pumping and operation and maintenance.

Mark Thompson, environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources, standing above the Berkeley Pit.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney / Montana Public Radio

Mark Thompson, MR’s VP of Environmental Affairs, says the additional Silver Lake water is a benefit to those discharging treated water into the creeks, like the mine.

"A lot of the reason that we’re looking at this agreement is securing water to Butte so it doesn’t get allocated elsewhere and those rights don’t get lost," Thompson says.

That’s what worries some downstream, like Alex Leone, with the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition. He says the non-profit had some big picture questions about how this deal will affect the watershed as a whole.

"While we appreciate the positive benefits for Blacktail and Upper Silver Bow Creek, we are also worried there will be negative consequences for Warm Springs Creek, an important tributary to the Clark Fork River, and the last bull trout stronghold in the area. The presence or absence of bull trout is basically a report card on how we are treating a river."

The water service agreement now has to be authorized by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which could take up to a year.