Downtown Whitefish, Montana

Downtown Whitefish

Sprinkler systems are under scrutiny in Whitefish.

Under an ordinance passed last week, municipal water users will be warned if they’re operating between 9 a.m.and 5 p.m., or watering the pavement rather than plants. Subsequent offenses will draw a $25 fine.

“Not a day goes by during the irrigation season that we don’t see water spraying out into the street or onto the sidewalk, and so this gives us some tools to control that,” said Craig Workman, the city’s public works director.

These rules, and others contained in the recent ordinance, come as Whitefish’s water system is near capacity, and the city tries to conserve more.

“I think we really need to think of this conservation ordinance (as) more of a ‘How do we waste less water?’ than ‘How is the city restricting water?’” Workman said.

In addition to the sprinkler rules, the ordinance required commercial lodging establishments offer guests the option of not having linens washed every day. The city would impose tougher restrictions in the event of severe drought or problems with water infrastructure.

The ordinance exempts automatic sprinkler system maintenance, and makes clear that boat and trailer decontamination is always permitted to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. It also allows businesses that rely on outdoor water to obtain a permit for that purpose.

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During the meeting in which the City Council unanimously approved the ordinance, City Council Member Richard Hildner added an amendment exempting vegetable gardens from the requirement, and Workman noted that the rules would not apply to irrigation at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club, which draws its water from the Whitefish River rather than the city system.

Workman said the new rules “were modeled off of a number of different conservation ordinances throughout the country, mostly in the Southwest. …We definitely used some practices that had proven effective in other communities.”

After years of population growth and rising tourism, Whitefish’s water system is under strain. The city’s treatment plant has a full capacity of 4 million gallons per day, or 3 million gallons per day with one unit out of service. According to the city, late-summer demand breached the 3-million gallon mark in three of the last five years.

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It calculates that under current conditions, it could serve an additional 1,075 “existing residential units,” each one equivalent to a typical single-family home's use. But in April, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality informed Whitefish that it would not consider any new extensions that would increase demand until the city submitted a Water System Capacity Evaluation and a deviation request.

Workman said he aimed to submit that paperwork by Friday, and receive a response by the end of June. The city is also exploring long-term measures to increase the system’s capacity, like expanding the treatment plant and developing a groundwater source, whose cost could reach as high as $18 million.

But for now, it’s taking less costly steps.

“We determined that reduction of excess water use really can be an extra source of water,” Workman said.

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