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Missoula Water Co.

To kick off the first full year of running its own water utility, leaders from the city filled in citizens on the first six months of ownership, as well as plans for the future at a Tuesday night forum.

The panel, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, offered data, analysis and answered questions.

Mayor John Engen led off with a recap of the “epic battle” of ownership, before Missoula Water Superintendent Dennis Bowman supplied some data from the last year of the utility, along with changes since the city took over.

Some 4,000 service orders, either scheduled or on-call, were completed in 2017, to do repairs, change meters and investigate leaks, Bowman said. The utility has maintenance staff on call 24/7.

Those repairs are partially due to the fact that one-third of the water mains are over 50 years old, Bowman said, and the utility plans to replace 4,350 feet of mains over the current fiscal year.

That, along with adding another 4,000 feet of mains and replacing and adding fire hydrants, is part of the planned $6.5 million in improvements.

Bowman wants to start sending out a quarterly update, so customers know what projects are coming up and what new services are available from their municipal utility.

“I want feedback from customers around the projects,” Bowman said. “What can we do better?”

He pointed people to the Missoula Water website (ci.missoula.mt.us/1983/Missoula-Water), where a map of upcoming projects can be found.

It’s the city’s priority to replace those water mains, Bowman said, to try and stem the 50 percent leakage rate of the city’s water.

He estimated the water leaked about evenly from city mains and from pipes leading to private homes. It’s the homeowner’s responsibility to replace those pipes, but Bowman is interested in coming up with a loan or financing option for citizens who need to do the work.

Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell covered the loans the city took out to pay for the $88 million utility, along with all legal fees and the first few years of improvements.

Customer rates are equal to what they were in 2011, he said, although that’s still one of the highest municipal water rates in the state.

Those rates aren’t going to be raised for at least three years.

“Rate increases are going to be inevitable for a new water system,” Bickell said, “but right now things are going as good or better than we expected.”

Though infrastructure improvements are unrelated to water rates now, Engen said the city may take out more loans in the future, if it needs to make more repairs to the utility. The city’s current loans are paid back by customer rates.

Ward 1 City Council representative Bryan von Lossberg said although the city is saving money by not paying corporate administrators, they shouldn’t look to slash spending as well to save money.

“This is a case where it’s important to do more, spend more,” von Lossberg said. “'Cause the system was falling behind.”

One person asked if there was a danger of the Missoula aquifer running out and how careful Missoulians should be in conserving water.

Bowman said the levels fluctuate a lot since water comes from snowmelt and the Clark Fork River and Rattlesnake Creek.

Von Lossberg cautioned that with lower river depths in recent years, it would be wise to be careful with water use, just in case, although the aquifer doesn’t show signs of running out anytime soon.

“We are blessed to have the aquifer we have,” he said. “To not take care of that would be foolish.”

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City, County Government Reporter

Government reporter for the Missoulian.