City begins search for additional water source

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The city of Whitefish draws its drinking water from Whitefish Lake, along with Second and Third creeks in Haskill Basin. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish)

Whitefish is beginning a search for a new source to supply the city with drinking water.

Currently, the city gets its water from Second and Third creeks in Haskill Basin, and during peak usage times it also draws from Whitefish Lake. However, that may not be enough to sustain the city in the future or prepare for potential impacts to those sources.

Public Works Director Craig Workman recently brought forward a plan to search for an underground source for water.

“We’ve struggled as a city with surface water as our source for water,” Workman said. “It’s expensive to treat and so it costs our users a lot. There is also a concern that has come up in the Climate Action Plan in terms of disaster mitigation.”

Workman noted that a wildfire in Haskill Basin could remove that as a source for water, as well as spraying fire retardant near the lake could at least temporarily impact the city’s only sources for water. In addition, any future infestation of aquatic invasive species in the lake could impact it as a water source.

“It behooves the city to look outside the city when we know that there are potential threats to our two water sources,” he said.

City Council gave its OK at a work session earlier this month that would allow AE2S engineers to move forward with preliminary planning related to the city’s water system including investigating an underground water source for the city. Engineers will also look at the current system, examine expanding the current water treatment plant, study adding a water storage tank for a total project cost of $70,000.

Councilor Richard Hildner said it’s important for the city to begin looking for other sources for water to prepare for the future.

“Living in a world with the potential for threats to our system, we need to look to add another source of water,” Hildner said. “I think it’s money well spent to look at our options.”

Councilor Frank Sweeney agreed.

“We don’t have any option, but to investigate this,” he said.

Workman noted that the new investigation will do a broader search, outside city limits to the southeast, than was completed in the past when no usable wells were located in or near the city.

“We are confident there is a significant confined aquifer southeast of Whitefish that would have water rights available for the city,” he said.

Alan Wendt, project engineer with AE2S, said while investigation still needs to be done, the potential underground water source looks promising enough that the city should investigate it further.

“There is a lot of things to consider,” he said. “The water we’re talking about is about 450 to 600 feet deep and it’s a fairly ubiquitous aquifer that runs clear down to [Flathead] Lake.”

Studies by the city in the 1990s selected the creeks and lake as the best source for water, but Workman noted, that was looking out 20 years and the city is at the end of that time frame so it needs to search for other sources.

“It’s also an ecological issue for us when it comes to taking that much water from Haskill Basin,” he said. “The conservation easement that protects that was extremely wise planning and the city has an amazing source of water there — it’s just not enough.”

The city gets about 90 percent of its water from Second and Third creeks, but during summer months it can draw about 60 percent from Whitefish Lake.

Replying to a question about whether First Creek could again be used as a water source, Workman said it’s possible, but may not be the best option. Historically the city had used First Creek, but that was abandoned in 1975 due to E. coli contamination from development on Big Mountain.

“We’ve done E. coli sampling and the preliminary results look favorable, but that still always going to be the most susceptible to development on Big Mountain,” he said. “Also when we need to increase our base flow in July and August when we’re taking almost all the water now in Second and Third creeks, and so to use First too seems detrimental to Haskill.”

Looking for an additional water source was prompted by talks about adding a water tank to the south side of the city. However, engineers determined that wouldn’t be feasible without a higher amount water capacity in the system.

“We could put a tank on the south side of the city, but during the summer months we’d have a difficult time filling it,” he said. “We’re concerned that we won’t be able to fill the tank. We will be able to produce water overnight, but then it would be empty by mid-day the next day.”

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