Missoula mulls increase in storm water fees for maintenance, Clean Water Act

The rate structure, proposed on Wednesday, is based on a national model involving vehicle trips, and the statistical average generated by certain properties. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

In order to comply with federal regulations on water quality, the city of Missoula is considering an increase to its storm water fees to build the revenue needed for system improvements.

The rate structure, proposed on Wednesday, is based on a national model involving vehicle trips, and the statistical average generated by certain properties.

Under the proposal, the owners of a single-family home would see their rates increase from roughly $9 a year to $50.53, or roughly $4.21 a month. That remains below comparable cities, including Bozeman at $6.15 a month, Kalispell at $7.59 a month and Great Falls at $8.42.

“The city storm water rate is generating about $275,000 a year right now, and the needs are substantially more than that in order to make the water quality improvements that are needed to comply with regulations and catch up on the deferred maintenance,” said John Ghilarducci, a consultant with the FCS Group.

“These are substantial increases, but very necessary to do what the city needs to do.”

The city established its Storm Water Utility in 2016 to comply with requirements of the Clean Water Act. Storm water is not treated by the wastewater plant and remains the leading cause of water pollution in the state.

Dennis Bowman, superintendent of public works, said the proposed rate structure is needed to meet federal requirements in the Clean Water Act and to address a backlog of maintenance needs. The city’s current rates fall well short of generating revenue needed to bring the system into compliance.

“Storm water runoff is the leading cause of water pollution in Montana,” said Bowman. “We have over 60 miles of pipe that discharge storm water into one of five water bodies, three of which are impaired.”

Those waterways include Miller Creek and the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.

Storm water is also discharged into the ground through sumps, and it eventually reaches the aquifer. Several hundred sumps are in need of repair, and other needs must be addressed.

Most of the runoff stems from impervious surfaces, including rooftops, parking lots and streets. It’s not yet known what Missoula County plans to do to comply with federal rules.

“All our drinking water comes out of our aquifer, so it’s really important that we protect it,” said Bowman. “The federal government has put these requirements on it, but to make it work, we need the revenue to do it. If we don’t do it, we’ll be penalized.”

Ghilarducci said $4.6 million is needed in capital improvements over the next four years. Under the proposal unveiled Wednesday, those costs would be achieved through incremental increases split between debt and rates, including $600,000 in 2020; $1.3 million in 2021; $1.3 million in 2022; and $800,000 in 2023.

“The city will need to issue some debt,” said Ghilarducci, adding that the costs will be phased in due to the system’s large financial needs. “It would have a dramatic effect on the rates to try to achieve some of these numbers immediately.”

If the rate increases are adopted by the City Council following a public hearing scheduled next month, city customers would receive a single bill for all three utilities, including water, storm water and wastewater, starting in February.

Doing so, Bowman said, will save the city money.

“We’re being more efficient,” Bowman said. “When we do our combined billing, I don’t want to portray that we’re raising water rates. We’re not raising water rates, we’re just combining billing. We want to make it easier to read so they can see everything on one bill.”

While members of the City Council didn’t act on Wednesday’s proposal other than to set a public hearing, most expressed support for protecting the aquifer and the local watershed.

Water, they noted, is the “essence of life.”

“We’re doing this because the federal government has mandated that we keep water going back into the system that keeps the Western states clean,” said council member Gwen Jones. “If we don’t do it, we’ll be penalized and pay heavy fines. We need to do it and do it right.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at martin@missoulacurrent.com