Big week in water: City acquires Phantom Hills system, starts main replacements

The Washington Companies this week agreed to donate and transfer ownership of the Phanton Hills water system to the city of Missoula in a move expected to lower customer rates.

The change of ownership is set to occur on July 1 and continues what’s been a big week for water news in Missoula. The city also closed the public sale of the long-term water bonds that helped finance the purchase of Mountain Water in 2017, and Missoula International Airport signed an agreement with the city to test its system’s water quality.

Dennis Bowman, deputy director of utilities with Public Works, said the city also has several large water main replacements planned in the coming weeks, continuing its commitment to reinvest in capital improvements.

“We’re doing some main replacements on Spruce and we’ve got one starting up in a week on South Avenue East,” Bowman said on Friday. “By the end of June, if they get the job on Grant and Harve done, it’ll be a little more than $7 million invested back into the system since July of last year.”

This week, the Washington Companies announced its plan to donate the Phantom Hills water system to the city. The system serves roughly 180 customers in the Ranch Club neighborhood.

The system’s transfer must be approved by the Montana Public Service Commission.

“It’s a nice little system and Washington Corps. has done a great job with it,” Bowman said. “It’s a stand-alone system and won’t connect to the city system. But we’ll put all our own computer systems on all the wells and we’ll be able to monitor and keep an eye on tank levels and flows electronically.”

The transfer of ownership will also enable customers to track their usage and charges. Under city ownership, Bowman said, customers on the Phantom Hills system should see a 40 percent reduction in their water bills.

“Washington Corps. recognized that the city has done a good job taking over Mountain Water and making it Missoula Water,” Bowman said. “We’re still working on pre-2011 water rates. They thought it would be better off for their customers.”

On Tuesday, the Missoula County Airport Authority also approved an agreement with the city for the testing of its water system. The airport maintains what’s known as a Consecutive Public Water Supply and it distributes water to a number of customers, both on and off the airfield.

Under the agreement, the airport will continue to maintain the system, though the city will be responsible for testing. The testing was required by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

“We’re going to do samples and keep an eye on it for them because it’s connected to our system,” Bowman said. “We have all the certified operators so it makes it better for the airport and the city.”

Also this week, the city issued and closed the public sale of the long-term bonds it used to refinanced the short-term loan that originally funded the purchase of Missoula Water.

“We acquired the system, paid all the legal costs and nearly tripled capital investment, all at rates lower than it was in 2014,” said Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer. “We’re very proud of that.”