Montana Voices: Missoula Water a bargain in securing our water future

Flush, wash, shower, swallow. Where water is concerned, it was probably business-as-usual last week in most Missoula households. At every turn of a faucet, water flowed forth: clean, treated, pressurized, home-delivered.

The thing of it is, last week was anything but business-as-usual for our community’s water future. A four-year court battle wrapped up. Mountain Water Company’s assets transferred to the city. For the first time in our town’s history, ownership of our water system — its pipes, pumps, wells, water rights, wilderness lakes and dams — finally landed where it belongs: in the hands of the people, to be managed for the public good, for all time.

Bringing our water system under public ownership is a big deal — and not just because of the dollars required. It’s a big deal because it’s about our community’s water: precious, finite, essential to life. And worth every penny we just spent to get it.

For anyone suffering sticker shock at the $84 million pricetag, perhaps it’s time to review what public ownership of our water system gives our community.

First, Missoula now owns extremely valuable water rights and has management control of irreplaceable water resources. The acquisition includes 75 water rights to the Missoula aquifer, Rattlesnake Creek and eight wilderness lakes. The aquifer is a vast natural storage tank, carved out by Ice Age floods and flowing in abundance with crystal-clear water. It sits right beneath our feet and is Missoula’s drinking water source.

Meanwhile, Rattlesnake Creek serves as emergency back-up supply. Missoula’s water rights account for 70-80 percent of the Rattlesnake’s flow: a biological sweet spot for diverse fish and wildlife species. The Rattlesnake watershed — with its interplay of seeps, feeder creeks and high mountain lakes — is a recreational and aesthetic anchor for Missoula residents and visitors alike, and that has everything to do with the water.

With these priceless water assets under public ownership, Missoula also has a lock on water security. And not a moment too soon. Population, pollution and climate are putting the squeeze on global drinking water supplies, and — as we know from Carlyle’s grab for Mountain Water in 2011 — investors are smelling profits and rushing in. So are commercial bottling plants. But those often spell trouble. There are disturbing accounts nationwide where large-scale bottling plants target a good water source and set up shop, only to deplete local water wells, dry up wetlands, and drain streams. These projects can spark huge local controversy and tear communities apart. Public ownership of our water assures that will not happen in Missoula.

That’s not the only benefit of a publicly-owned water system. We now have a highly-responsive owner with a track record of conservation stewardship. While the city has no experience operating a drinking water system, the city’s management of the wastewater treatment plant should reassure. When citizens asked the treatment plant to be a better steward of the Clark Fork in the 1980s, the city invested in cutting-edge technologies and implemented practices that dramatically improved water quality in the Clark Fork, all for a reasonable price.

We expect to see the same approach applied to our water system, where there are leaks to fix, meters to install, water rights and wilderness lakes to manage, and planning to be done to position our community for quality growth in a climate-stressed world.

Here in Missoula, we’ve staked our livelihoods on water. We grew our town along the banks of the Clark Fork and its trout-filled tributaries. We are perched above an aquifer, flowing quietly underground, prolific and clean. Missoula is the City of Water; $84 million was a small price to pay to make it ours.

Karen Knudsen is executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition.