Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While Missoula has experienced significant residential growth in recent years, resulting in a building boom in several parts of the city, water usage has remained relatively flat when compared to recent years, according to the city.

Logan McInnis, deputy director of Public Works, said the average summer usage in Missoula remains around 40 million gallons of water daily, give or take a few million gallons.

“We have some ups and downs,” McInnis said. “In the month of July, we produced a little over 38 million gallons of water a day, or 1.2 billion gallons a month. Two years ago, we were at 1.3 billion gallons per month. We're certainly not using much more than we used to.”

The Missoula Current inquired about trends in citywide water usage last week when Missoula recorded several consecutive days of 100-degree temperatures. It was the summer's second stretch of triple-digit heat.

Until the remnants of Hurricane Hilary arrived on Sunday, dousing Missoula with a steady rain, the summer of 2023 had been a dry one. But by and large, water usage remained steady, data suggests.

“The peak we've ever produced was 52 million gallons. That was in 2007 and we had a day where we hit 107 degrees. The entire month that July was over 90 degrees. Our water use was pretty extreme that year, but we've barely been over 42.5 million gallons (monthly) since.”

Missoula used more than 9.3 billion gallons of water over the course of last year, compared to 9.2 billion gallons in 2019. Hensel attributed the steady use of water to a number of factors.

While thousands of new housing units are going up in the greater Mullan area and the South Hills, many new developments are using low-flow water fixtures. McInnis said many residents also look to avoid high water bills and work to manage their water use.

Former Mayor John Engen celebrates after the final ruling in the Mountain Water case in which a final order of condemnation was issued. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current file)
Former Mayor John Engen celebrates after the final ruling in the Mountain Water case, in which a final order of condemnation was issued. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current file)

But the biggest factor may be public ownership of the water system. The City of Missoula fought with the system's private owner in an eminent domain case that took years of litigation to resolve. Nearly a decade has since passed and the city has invested millions of dollars to repair the system, which was in notoriously bad condition when it was acquired.

“We made a pretty significant reduction in leakage last year with our water main replacement project. It's like 500 or 600 gallons a minute that we've reduced in leakage,” said McInnis. “Even at 500 gallons a minute, that's 700,000 gallons of water saved each month by reducing leaks. As we have growth and as we fix leakage, we think we can hold the line on usage by converting to modern plumbing, using water more wisely and repairing leaks.”

When the city acquired the water utility, it was leaking more than 4.7 billion gallons per year. Advocates of public ownership saw that as a huge waste of resources at a time when the West was drying up and water was growing increasingly scarce.

Hensel said the city will continue chipping away at leakage and while Missoula grows, demand for water shouldn't strain the system. As it stands, McInnis said the city can produce 76 million gallons of water a day.

“We've been ramping up our water main replacement, and we've kind of hit our stride,” McInnis said. “We're spending $6 million to $8 million a year. We're pretty confident we can keep (leakage) trending in the downward projection at least.”

This chart shows the daily water production in Missoula.
This chart shows the daily water production in Missoula.

The city's water is fed by an underground aquifer that's replenished largely by the Clark Fork River. While city officials have a basic understanding of the aquifer, McInnis said it would like to do a more complete study, and that will require funding and expertise.

“We want people to use water wisely, but we don't currently have any concern about shortage,” said McInnis. “You can look at some data where the aquifer level it's trending down and other data says it's not. We don't want to ignore it, but there's no reason to be alarmed. It's something we want to pay attention to.”