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Back in 1870, Missoulians got their water from One-Eyed Riley and his Missoula Water Works.

Riley's original system was a yoke and two buckets that he hauled door to door. Today, Mountain Water Co. can store 9.3 million gallons and is about to be sold to the multinational Carlyle Group for an undisclosed - but sizable - sum.

In all that time, though, why hasn't Missoula taken ownership of its drinking water?

Jack Reidy was making his first run for Missoula City Council in 1985 when the city made its last play to buy Mountain Water Co.

"I remember campaigning door to door, and some people were very adamant about it," Reidy said. "I was just all for getting it. And we almost did it. It's a shame we didn't."

Reidy went on to serve on the City Council for 22 years, and frequently bemoaned Missoula's inability to control its own water destiny. But that missed sale wasn't the first time the water system changed hands.


The city's first pipes and mains were built a year after One-Eyed Riley made his rounds. C.P Higgins and Frank Worden are credited with the first municipal system in 1880, using two small reservoirs on Waterworks Hill fed by ditches from Rattlesnake Creek.

The Missoula Mercantile Co. bought the initial wooden mains and added an electrical plant, according to Mountain Water Co. records. Copper King W.A. Clark reportedly paid $900,000 for the system in 1905, and Missoula Light and Water incorporated in 1906.

In 1923, Mayor William Beacom argued the city should buy the water plant for $600,000 in public bonds. At the time, he claimed "every city of any size in the state, with the exception of poor old Butte and Missoula, now owns its own water system and is getting better service and cheaper rates than under the old system of private monopoly and franchise."

The voters turned him down a year later.

The Montana Power Co. bought Missoula Light and Water in 1929. At the time, the utility controlled the city's electrical, central heating and trolley systems as well as the water supply.

City Attorney Jim Nugent was just getting settled into his post under Mayor Bill Cregg in 1979 when Montana Power announced it wanted to sell the Missoula water utility. Cregg wanted to buy it.

"He went to the City Council to inquire what they thought," Nugent said. "But before he got back to Montana Power, Montana Power had sold it to Sam Wheeler in California without notice."

Wheeler's Park Water Co. paid $7.5 million in 1979 for the Missoula system and a smaller one serving the town of Superior. It has been the parent company of Mountain Water Co. ever since.

Missoula Mayor John Toole made much the same arguments as his predecessor Beacom in 1984, when he campaigned to take over the utility through a court-ordered condemnation.

At the time, the city estimated Mountain Water was worth $11 million. It planned a $17.5 million revenue bond to buy the water system, build a new treatment plant to allow use of Rattlesnake Creek water, do capital improvements and repairs, and keep a $2 million debt reserve.

Then-Mountain Water general manager Lee Magone disputed the system's value. He said a court might find $16 million was a fair price.

A group of 10 Missoula residents protested the condemnation plan with a voter initiative. The city took them to court, claiming it was an administrative matter. The city lost, and Toole decided to skip the upcoming primary election for his own mayoral seat in order to campaign for the water issue.


The vote took place on Sept. 10, 1985. Nugent recalled Toole was so nervous about the outcome, he took a drive before Election Day and didn't tell anyone where he went. Turned out, he went to Jordan and started writing a letter where he "thought I'd blame everybody. I'd blame myself first and then I'd parcel the blame out."

Instead, the measure passed, 4,006 to 3,475. Mountain Water responded with a court challenge of its own, saying the city lacked sufficient need to condemn its operation and take it over. That case made it to the state Supreme Court, which agreed with the utility.

Nugent said the backstory to the court battles was the difficulty getting the utility to upgrade its aging water pipes and expand service to Missoula's growing suburbs. The Mullan Road, Grant Creek and South Hills areas were all being developed with independent water systems.

In 1983, giardia turned up in Rattlesnake Creek, which forced Mountain Water to move to underground wells and - a few years later - to chlorination. Sampling tests found dangerous levels of pesticides, heavy metals and diesel fuel in 1984 and '86.

"They were taking the heat from our lawsuit, and they immediately started taking action," Nugent recalled.

Mountain Water began acquiring the independent water systems and updating its mains. While subsequent mayors, particularly Dan Kemmis and Mike Kadas, negotiated for a right of first refusal to buy the system, no sales opportunity came up.

The current, pending purchase came as a surprise to Mayor John Engen.

The purchase price hasn't been revealed. But in its public announcement, Carlyle Group spokesman Chris Ullman wrote the company was a "$1.14 billion fund that invests primarily in transportation and water infrastructure projects in the U.S. and Canada generally ranging from $100 million to more than $1 billion in enterprise value."


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