$84 Million and Worth Every Penny – Missoula & Water Security An Interview with Karen Knudsen
Public acquisition of the water is a really big deal. It brings these priceless water assets under public ownership and puts them out of reach of private investors that view water as the next hot investment – blue gold.
We spoke with Karen Knudsen, of the Clark Fork Coalition about the importance of investing in water and forests for water security. Why did Missoulans agree to pay $84 million for the private water company?
Why was this purchase of the Missoula water system important? Why is it a big deal?
It is a big deal because it’s about our community’s water. Water is precious, it’s finite, it is essential for life, and, from our perspective, worth every penny just spent to get it.
With water assets under public ownership, that also means our community, Missoula, has a lock on water security. And not a moment too soon, because population, pollution, and climate change are all putting the squeeze on global drinking water supplies.
As we know from the Missoula experience when the Carlyle Group came in and made a grab for Mountain Water in 2011, investors are smelling profits, and rushing in. So are commercial bottling plants.
And those spell trouble. There are a lot of disturbing accounts throughout the West where large-scale bottling plants target a good water source, then set up shop only to deplete the local water wells and dry up wetlands and drain streams. They can be a real parade of horrors ecologically, sparking local controversy, and tearing communities apart.
With public ownership of our water resources now in hand, we are relieved to know that this will not happen ever in Missoula.
What does the purchase mean for your natural environment in the region?
Quite a bit. The public now has management control of irreplaceable water resources, including extremely valuable water rights—75 in all. The portfolio includes water rights to the aquifer, which is Missoula’s drinking water source. This aquifer is prolific—a vast natural storage tank carved out by Ice Age floods. It’s an incredible asset for our community.
Then there’s the water rights to the feeder streams that recharge the aquifer, including Rattlesnake Creek and eight wilderness lakes it drains. Rattlesnake Creek is the emergency backup supply for Missoula’s drinking water. So, it’s imperative to keep the creek’s water quality in good shape. The city’s water rights on Rattlesnake Creek account for about 70% to 80% of that creek’s flow. Those water rights essentially keep the creek wet and alive throughout the summer months.
Rattlesnake Creek is additionally important from an ecological perspective because it’s a biological sweet spot for diverse fish and wildlife species. In the Rattlesnake, we have this interplay of seeps and feeder creeks, high mountain lakes and forests. It’s also a recreational and aesthetic anchor for Missoula residents and visitors. And it all has to do with water.
So yes. Public acquisition of the water is a really big deal. It brings these priceless water assets under public ownership and puts them out of reach of private investors that view water as the next hot investment—blue gold.
Now that the deal is done, and these assets are in the city’s hands and in the public’s hands, what are a couple of the things that you need to pay attention to as you look forward over the next five years?
Obviously, the dust needs to settle a bit with the acquisition. Missoula has never owned its own water utility. But we expect the city will speed along the learning curve. Our local officials have run a wastewater treatment plant for decades, and those are more complicated endeavors than water utilities. Plus, the city’s management of its wastewater treatment plant has been exemplar, and it has a track record of stewardship of the Clark Fork River, which receives the plant’s treated wastes. So once the city has hit stride with the water utility, we’ll start the conversation about ways to get a bigger ecological bang out of the system.
For example, the city could implement metering to encourage efficient use of water resources. There’s also the need to aggressively tackle the 40% leak rate in the utility’s under-maintained network of pipes, thanks to years of deferred maintenance. Plugging holes in pipes will also reduce pumping requirements and the system’s carbon footprint. Then there’s the need to fill in the service gaps around our community, where people have had to rely on unmonitored, unregulated individual wells for their drinking water.
As for ecological gains to be made, we think there are some really interesting things that could be done with some of the water rights. Perhaps converting some of them to in-stream flow and enhancing wild trout habitat. There’s also a dam on Rattlesnake Creek that has outlived its usefulness. Let’s pull that unnecessary infrastructure out of the creek and let it flow.
Also, higher up in Rattlesnake Creek, on the national forests, the city now has water rights on eight wilderness lakes. Those The dams there also have been seen scant maintenance over the years and are stockpiling sediment. They could use some TLC to avoid a catastrophic flush of sediments from a big rain event under-maintained. There’s some dams, there’s some sediment loading.
If we have some extreme weather event, we’d see a whole lot of sediment flushing down into Rattlesnake Creek causing huge ecological damage.
The upshot is that there’s no shortage of work to do to help our community do right by our shared water resources and protect the incredible ecological assets that have come under the city’s care.
What flags do you raise for other communities that are thinking of buying back their water system from private investors?
Well, all I can say is – we are waving the green flag. It is well worth whatever it takes to make public ownership happen.
There’s always an opportunity cost and questions to ask. Where will the money come from? What is the best path? Condemnation isn’t free.
Here in Missoula, our city paid $84 million for the water. I am convinced we will never look back. Sure, $84 million dollars could have filled a lot of potholes and improved some roads. But we’re talking about water. Water is essential to everything that we care about in the West. And water security is only going to become a bigger issue in the years ahead. So, it’s one giant green flag that I’m waving. If communities have the opportunity to purchase from private buyers or private owners, I’d say go for it! At the very least, start the conversation.
Ultimately, Missoula’s purchase ended up in a condemnation proceeding. That took years and cost a lot of dollars, but it was successful. So, if there was a cautionary red flag to raise, I would suggest vigorous conversation and negotiation first and see where that leads. See if you can get to some collaborative agreement. Clarify the expectations. Put it in writing. Assume a good outcome. But if it starts to fade from reach, prepare to dig deeper into the toolbox and do whatever it takes. Water is precious and communities should control their own water destiny.
What would you point to as, the three key ingredients that made this all happen?
First: a pretty high water IQ in our community. This never would have happened if we didn’t have strong community support and recognition of the importance of public control of our drinking water.
Second: strong government leadership. We have a mayor who saw the opening, understood the importance, and recognized the need. He tuned into the magic moment, and went for it.
Third: you’ve got to have a broad base of partners you can rely on to really slog it out when the going gets tough. Community leadership among elected officials and strong collaborative partnerships moved this audacious vision forward.