East Helena plans water system improvements, rate increases

Posted at 6:05 PM, Jul 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-02 20:45:40-04

East Helena city leaders have been looking at the need for water system improvements for years. Now, some of the projects outlined in the city’s Water Master Plan are set to go forward.

The East Helena City Council held a special meeting Tuesday night, where they approved moving forward with three projects, expected to cost a total of just over $4 million.

“The master plan included many different improvements that are necessary for the city of East Helena,” said Mayor James Schell. “In order to keep costs down, those were whittled down to three major projects.”

The most expensive project will be the replacement of two water storage tanks in the McClellan Creek area, set to cost almost $3.4 million. City leaders say the tanks, which date back decades, are deteriorating significantly. According to documents shown during the Tuesday meeting, it’s estimated the system currently loses 16 million gallons of water a year through leaks.

The city is also planning to spend about $200,000 on a new water line under Prickly Pear Creek at Main Street. Schell said the previous line failed several years ago, and replacing it would improve reliability by allowing water to flow from one side of the city to the other.

The third project, for just under $600,000, would be for new lines along First Street and Manlove Avenue, near the American Chemet facility. Currently, a water line dead-ends at American Chemet with a pipe smaller than the current standard. The new plan is to replace the current pipe and add another connection to the rest of the city system. Leaders say it will improve water pressure and provide more reliable service south of the railroad tracks.

About $2.1 million of the funding for these projects will come from the Montana Department of Justice through a Natural Resource Damage grant. That grant includes some of the money the state received as part of a 2009 settlement with ASARCO, the owner of the former East Helena smelter. The city is also set to receive an additional $500,000 through the Treasure State Endowment Program and $125,000 from a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation grant.

“Having these projects – these highly technical and rather expensive projects – done during a time when grants are available is the best bang for the buck,” Schell said.

City leaders say there will have to be an increase in water rates, most likely starting in January. The city council will work on the specific formula for the revised rates later this year.

Schell said the city’s current water rates – $30 per month and $1.10 per 1,000 gallons used – have not been raised since 1999. He said leaders are currently looking at increases of about $7 or $8 for a typical two-person household.

“We understand that, especially during this time, people are hurting,” said Schell. “And so, implementing this throughout 2020 has been rather difficult, so planning for a future rate increase of 2021 is the best that we can do.”

Schell said the work on these three projects will likely start in the spring of 2021. He expected they should be completed within a year.