"Now that's some High-Quality H2O!"

Last Wednesday (September 18) was World Water Monitoring Day, a global education outreach program started in 2003 by America’s Clean Water Foundation. In recognition of this day, communities are encouraged to get out and learn more about their local rivers, streams and wetlands by measuring simple water quality parameters like temperature, turbidity and dissolved oxygen levels.

Ideally, the plan is that the more local citizens who know about their watersheds, the more likely they are to notice changes to them and take the necessary actions to protect them. Locally, the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program (ww.cfwep.org) has been doing this for more than a decade. I became familiar with the World Water Monitoring Day event when I used to run CFWEP some time ago. The program is still at it, getting stronger year after year. And guess what? Butte’s local waterways, namely Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks are in better hands now because of it. 

Back when CFWEP first started monitoring Silver Bow Creek with its students in the early 2000’s, the floodplain was covered in tailings and clumps of dead willows. The only animals living in the stream were a few pollution-tolerant species like leeches and blood midges. Today, the creek’s banks are lush with plant growth, chirping with birds and regularly visited by deer, elk and small mammals. The water is full of all the inhabitants of a healthy stream, like mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies (see the photo below, courtesy of CFWEP), as well as a growing population of native trout. 

These amazing improvements are courtesy of two full decades of environmental cleanup and restoration that started on the creek in Butte and continued close to thirty miles downstream. For nearly as long, CFWEP has been in the schools of Butte, Ramsay, Anaconda, and every other classroom downstream to Bonner and even Missoula, building the educated environmental stewards of our next generation with place-based lessons and events like World Water Monitoring Day.  

That’s one of the reasons why it drives me crazy as I continue to hear about the “dirty water” trademark that’s been given to us. The first place this “title” came from was when the student cheering section of one our local high schools’ opponents started chanting it at a sporting event 15 years or so ago. This column is partly dedicated to these folks’ education. 

Sure, we’ve got the Berkeley Pit sitting at the edge of town, holding about 50 billion gallons of water that could definitely be described as dirty. In fact, I’m sure these youngsters thought they were being quite clever, as if they were the first ones to notice. Lucky for us (and everyone downstream, for that matter) the water in the Berkeley Pit isn’t going anywhere, other than to be pumped for treatment. 

The rest of Butte’s water is pretty darned clean and unlike a lot of places, there’s plenty of it to go around. In addition to the vastly improved water in our streams, Butte’s stormwater is way cleaner than it used to be, thanks to over 30 years of Superfund cleanup. In five more years or so, The Mining City will have as clean if not cleaner urban runoff as any place in Montana. And our drinking water is already arguably the best in the state and beyond.

What? You thought we actually drank from the Pit?? 

This myth is as mindless as someone from the Big City who thinks us Montanans are still using outhouses for daily purposes and riding our horses to work. Beginning in the 1990s, Butte began building multi-million-dollar water treatment plants for our city’s drinking sources. Presently, we get 60 percent or more of our drinking supply from the blue-ribbon trout waters of the Big Hole River, located approximately 22 miles away from the Berkeley Pit and on the opposite side of the Continental Divide. 

In 2017, the Basin Creek Water Treatment Plant came on-line, which supplies around 30 percent of our supply. This source comes from two pristine mountain reservoirs in the Highlands, located 12 miles away from the Pit. In addition, the Basin Creek plant cost over $30 million and uses a novel ceramic membrane filtration technology, only the second of its kind to be built in North America. Bottom line: NONE of Butte’s water supply comes from nor is it affected by the Berkeley Pit, or any other water source that is historically or presently contaminated by mining. If for anything, nowadays we should be known for our clean water

Unfortunately, the dirty title has stayed alive – amazingly, on our own accord. It seems that some folks in our community think it’s a badge of courage, pride or something else to embrace the name-calling of our said, small-minded opponents. Dead serious: there are actually youth sports teams here that go by “Dirty Water” and invite visiting teams to come to Butte to play in tournaments named after the Pit. Get me if I’m wrong, but that just completely sends the wrong message. 

Now that we all know better, maybe we can come up with something more fitting to market our town. After all, we’ve already spent somewhere in the neighborhood north of a billion dollars and the past 30 years trying to clean it up. In the words of Adam Sandler’s character Bobby Boucher in The Waterboy, “…Now that’s some high-quality H2O!”  

And a change for the good is always better! 


(Top, credit to Melissa Wanamaker, CFWEP) Thanks to a massive cleanup effort and good environmental stewardship, Silver Bow Creek is now clean enough to support healthy aquatic life, like this stonefly nymph (Plecoptera) collected last week during a CFWEP field trip.