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Eighty percent of Bozeman’s municipal water supply comes from the Bozeman Municipal Watershed, located in the Hyalite and Bozeman Creek (Sourdough) drainages. Before reaching your tap, this water is treated at the Bozeman City Water plant.

Several watershed assessments conducted by the Forest Service, city of Bozeman, and Bozeman Creek watershed council concluded that fuel conditions within the Bozeman Municipal Watershed pose a risk to city water supply in the event of a wildfire. In short, if a large wildfire were to occur in the municipal watershed it could overwhelm the treatment plant with ash and sediment, leaving Bozeman with an extremely limited supply of potable water.

In the interest of ensuring this scenario does not play out, in 2005 the city of Bozeman and Forest Service embarked on a cooperative project to maintain a high-quality, predictable water supply for Bozeman residents – the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project. Now, after completing an environmental impact statement, supplemental environmental impact statement, and several years of court review (including by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals), the Forest Service is poised to begin work on the project this summer.

After the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project is completed there will inevitably still be fires that ignite in the municipal watershed. However, the project will reduce fire severity near the municipal water intake and treatment areas by reducing the amount of available fuel. Fuels reduction will also make it easier, and safer for firefighters to suppress any fires that do start in the watershed, and will help to protect the wildland urban interface – the many homes located along the Gallatin face.

The Custer Gallatin Working Group recognizes that this project will cause some temporary disruptions in how we recreate in the Bozeman Creek and lower Hyalite drainages, and that the forest may not look exactly the same when the project is fully implemented.

However, we believe the long-term benefit of protecting Bozeman’s municipal water supply is worth these costs. It has been many years since the Bozeman area saw a fuels treatment project at the scale of the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project, but climate change and population growth have made this project even more urgent since it was first conceived in 2005. Bozeman’s population has increased by 49% in the past 15 years. Not only do more people rely on City of Bozeman water than in 2005, most wildfires are human-caused, and more people recreating in the watershed means a greater chance that a fire will start.

Furthermore, the risks to the watershed identified in 2005 have only become more pronounced with drought gripping the forest for much of this time.

By living in close proximity to public lands, Montana residents are on the front lines of natural resource management and the Custer Gallatin National Forest and city of Bozeman are committed to ensuring this project is done right. This is an opportunity for those of us in the Gallatin Valley to observe first-hand how we can balance scenery, recreation, conservation and watershed health in the 21st century.

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John E. Prinkki is the chair of the Custer Gallatin Working Group.