City’s vision for running the water system: “Our plan is to plan”

“We don’t have a plan today.”

Those are the words of Missoula Mayor John Engen, when we asked him under oath about the city’s plan for promoting water conservation.

He said the same thing when we asked him about the city’s plan for fixing leaking service lines and water mains. And also when we asked him how the city intends to migrate customers from flat-rate to metered water service.

No plan for improving service. No plan for updating the water system. So what plan has the city made?

“The city is planning to plan.”

Bruce Bender told us that. He’s the chief administrative officer for the city of Missoula. If the city were to win its condemnation case against Mountain Water Company, Mr. Bender would develop and implement policy for the new water department. Planning is his job.

Neither official elaborated about their plans for operating the water system. And no other city officials or experts offered us different answers.

In other words, the city literally has no plan for operating the water system better, more efficiently or even differently. Despite claiming that a takeover is more necessary than continued ownership by Mountain Water. Despite spending millions of dollars on attorneys and consultants.

How can public officials justify condemnation of the Mountain Water system when they don’t have so much as a sketch of how they’d operate it differently?

Missoula officials have wanted to take over the water system since the late 1980s when the courts denied their last takeover attempt. It’s not like they haven’t had time to plan what they would do if they got their wish.

We plan and we plan
At Mountain Water, we know that’s no way to operate. We have detailed plans for operation, conservation, maintenance and replacement of infrastructure, and customer migration to metered service. Frankly, we can’t afford to approach operations any other way. The Montana Public Service Commission tightly regulates what we charge and what we provide as service to our customers.

If we didn’t plot a careful course and stay on it, the safety, reliability and affordability of Missoula’s water would suffer.

Mountain Water has a long history of developing and implementing comprehensive operational and capital investment plans.

Our plan for addressing water main leakage, for example, examines everything from the age and types of water pipes in our system to the varying soil composition around the Missoula valley. It details the cost of installing new pipe, the cost of spot repairs, and the cost of lost water. It concludes with a detailed plan to responsibly address leakage on both mains and service lines without causing rate shock. You can read the full plan at this link.

We have similarly detailed plans for transitioning flat-rate water customers to metered water, because we know that is the most effective way for customers to see what they use. As a result, we consistently migrate an average of 200 customers every year to metered service. We also have a range of other initiatives.

Beyond those, we have programs for helping low-income customers. For protecting and enhancing the water supply. For keeping community members informed about upcoming water system construction projects that might affect their water service or daily commutes. For protecting the system from backflow and cross-connections. For extending water mains and facilities. For informing customers about water interruptions. For setting fair and reasonable rates. The list goes on and on.

That’s one of the reasons why Liberty Utilities was so keen to invest in Mountain Water. They appreciate the fact that we plan what we do and we do what we plan. That’s a cornerstone of their approach as well.

Providing clean, safe reliable service requires us to plan first. A plan to plan is not the right plan for Missoula.