Eureka water meetings yield ‘peace of mind’

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Mike Cuffe lowered his well pump a few years back to keep the water flowing. He speculated then that increased development in the region might have affected the aquifer serving his well.

He was almost certainly wrong.

On Monday afternoon, following a presentation of preliminary data about local aquifers and groundwater by two hydrogeologists from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Cuffe concluded drought had been the likely culprit.

Nearly 70 people turned out for the noon presentation at the Riverstone Family Lodge near Eureka by hydrogeologists John LaFave and James Baldwin, and nearly 50 attended the 7 p.m. presentation.

Cuffe, a former state representative from Eureka who is now a state senator, said after the meetings that he felt people who attended left feeling reassured that development to date has not affected their water.

“I believe many farmers and homeowners went home with greater peace of mind that their wells will continue to flow pure water far into the future,” Cuffe said.

LaFave and Baldwin told the crowd there were about 500 documented wells in the Eureka area in 1993 and that the number of wells has more than tripled since then, reaching a count of about 1,717 by 2017.

Yet the men said their preliminary findings reveal no signals that suggest aquifers are being depleted. They said water quality generally remains very good. The one exception is an area long known for what locals describe as “soda water,” which was found to be high in total dissolved solids.

LaFave and Baldwin shared data and impressions from research that included inventorying 132 wells in the vicinity of Eureka and conducting a more comprehensive sampling for chemical analysis of 80 of those wells.

Many of the people who attended the meetings had voluntarily agreed for their wells to be examined.

Dale Patrick attended the noon meeting. He said he has experienced no problems with his well’s flow to date.

“But people keep moving in here,” he said. “They keep springing houses up around me.”

Randy Wilson, whose well was included in the research, said he came to the noon meeting to learn more about aquifers and groundwater.

Eureka Mayor LeeAnn Schermerhorn said she attended the meeting even though the areas studied were outside city limits.

“I’m just here to listen and learn,” she said.

Baldwin and LaFave told the noon crowd that their research required grappling with a uniquely complex system of aquifers shaped by the advance and retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago and related landforms such as drumlins, kettles and moraines.

The men talked about the differences that can accompany drilling a well in glacial outwash as opposed to glacial till, with the latter posing more challenges.

LaFave said data show typical seasonal fluctuations in most wells, reflecting snowmelt increases in groundwater in spring and the drop in groundwater as summer progresses.

“We do not see depletion trends in the aquifers,” from the preliminary data, he said.

There have been concerns and controversy in recent years about the impacts of development on groundwater and water rights for the Tobacco River.

In 2016, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation denied a beneficial water-use permit sought by Indian Springs Ranch Water and Sewer. The state agency ruled that Indian Springs had “not proven by a preponderance of the evidence” that surface water could reasonably be considered legally available in the over-allocated Tobacco River during the period sought by the Indian Springs development.

Ultimately, in June, Indian Springs appealed that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. But then it withdrew the appeal in September.

Fred Schickedanz and Troy Truman of the Indian Springs Ranch development attended the noon session. Truman said Thursday the company is considering how it might respond to the preliminary research findings.

Cuffe, who had asked the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology to conduct the groundwater research, said he believed the people who attended the Monday meetings “appreciated the thoroughness and professionalism of the presenters.”

He said he knows there will be additional study and analysis that will take time. The Eureka groundwater assessment began in 2017, but the bulk of the field work occurred in 2018.

“We feel good about the study,” Cuffe said. “The full intention was to get away from one expert giving an opinion opposite to the other expert’s opinion. With patience, we open a strong factual foundation. I expect that disputes will reduce in the future.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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