HELENA — A continuing disagreement between residents of a Helena Valley subdivision and their water provider made its way before the Montana Public Service Commission on Tuesday. After a lengthy meeting, the PSC directed North Star subdivision leaders to find a way to make more water available for homeowners to use outdoors.
Commissioners said it was clear to them that the subdivision hasn’t been providing adequate water service to its nearly 300 residential customers, but they were split on the best way to deal with the current issues that have led to watering restrictions. In the end, they approved a proposal from Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, directing that homeowners should be able to water outside for 30 minutes every other day, through Sept. 30.
For several weeks, North Star Development and Rocky Mountain Operators – the contractor that runs the subdivision’s water system – have had a “no outdoor watering” policy in place, restricting watering lawns and other uses outside the home.
“The amendment that I have made is basically to try to get some relief to these citizens who we’ve been hearing from for the last several weeks and months,” said Fielder.
Commissioners voted down a second motion from Fielder that would have implemented fines of up to $1,000 and temporary service terminations for homeowners who repeatedly violated watering rules – as well as fining North Star if they failed to make water available for outdoor use.
Fielder said a fine would have to be more than a “slap on the wrist” to convince people not to overwater, but Commissioner Tony O’Donnell said the proposed fine amounts were too large.
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners heard from North Star residents frustrated by the limits on outdoor watering.
“We have more and more no water days, therefore less and less days to water,” said Ralph Jackson.
“I’m tired of hauling water,” said Tanner Duncan. “Yesterday, I actually took a truckload of jugs from MacDonald Pass. I brought 30 gallons home to my house so I could keep my trees alive.”
They also heard from North Star owner Doug Boutilier, who said the issue isn’t a lack of water, but a distribution pump in the subdivision’s storage tank. He said the no-watering rule has been in place since July 17, when an equipment failure burned out the main pump. Since then, they have been using a backup pump. Boutilier said Rocky Mountain Operators tried to find a replacement pump but couldn’t get one locally and ended up buying one that was backordered for six to eight weeks.
In a statement to the PSC, RMO manager Tyler Stuck said loosening water restrictions and allowing residents to water every other day would be “dangerous because past customer action has shown that the relaxed use cannot be controlled and could exceed the capacity of the system.” He said increased consumption could burn out the backup pump, threatening their ability to reliably provide the 91,000 gallons a day allocated for household use.
Boutilier said he understood residents’ frustration, and he was willing to tell Stuck to relax the no-watering rule, but he warned about the possible effects.
“Just so everyone understands, if that pump burns out like he says – that’s his concern – it’s not North Star’s fault,” he said. “We were trying to go with the guy that we pay a lot of money to. Based on his recommendation, this is what we did.”
Fielder said her directive can be halted, if the North Star homeowners’ association agrees that increasing water use would be damaging to the system.
“If that information is presented to the homeowners’ association, it will be up to them to decide, ‘Okay, this isn’t a good plan,’ but I want that discussion to happen between the developer and the homeowners’ association,” she said.
Jonathan Motl, attorney for North Star, said North Star has been making efforts to talk to the homeowners about the water issues and that leaders hoped to have discussions with residents as soon as possible. He argued both sides have to do a better job of communicating.
“The relationship between the utility and the homeowners is strained enough that I think time is the only solution on this – time and discussion,” he said.
The PSC also approved a proposal by Commissioner Brad Johnson, directing North Star to make additional efforts to see if a replacement pump can be found sooner.
Commissioner James Brown, the PSC’s chair, voted against requiring North Star to make more water available. He said he didn’t disagree with the goal, but that he felt the commission hadn’t been given nearly enough information to make a good decision.
“I take seriously North Star’s position that any action we take today to allow additional watering or alternate watering may jeopardize the ability to provide water at all – that’s a serious allegation, but I have no way to verify that,” Brown said. “That doesn’t make me feel comfortable even making a decision today.”
Brown said he was frustrated by how drawn out this case has become, and said he would favor a more punitive approach to North Star. He said there are many complicated issues that still have to be worked out, and suggested that might require a full rate case in the future.
North Star and residents have been at odds over utilities for years. In early 2020, homeowners protested to the PSC when North Star proposed increasing residential water and sewer rates. The commission eventually rejected that proposal in August 2020, and set the rates even lower than they had been. North Star sued the PSC over that decision. The case has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
A few weeks after the PSC heard the rate case, they opened an investigation after North Star shut off water overnight to allow retention tanks to refill. That investigation expanded into whether North Star is providing adequate service to its customers, and the order on reducing consumption stemmed from that investigation.