The Stevensville Town Council, at its January 10 meeting, moved to sign a letter of engagement with water rights attorney Ross Miller. The town is facing some serious water problems with both the aging infrastructure of its water delivery system and its right to use the water that it is currently using.
Public Works Director George Thomas told the council that over the past month the town pumped about 13 million gallons of water from its wells but only about 5 million gallons made it to its destined use by homes and businesses in the community. An estimated 8 million gallons disappeared due to leaks. The public works department has been working for years on trying to locate the leaks. They have had some success but, from the numbers, obviously there is still a long way to go to resolve the problem.
The town has also been facing problems over its right to use the water from its new well field located adjacent to the Twin Creeks subdivision on the southeast side of town. The well field is not located within the town limits.
When the Town decided to quit using the gravity feed system located up the Burnt Fork and start using well water from its new wells near town, it ran into legal problems concerning the change in water rights from Burnt Fork surface water to the newly installed groundwater wells.
One problem, it turned out, was that the Town failed to file for its historic water rights in a timely fashion. On top of that, state law mandated that a valid water right could only be issued for the amount of water being used at the time it was granted. This left every town in Montana in a difficult if not untenable position since they had all mostly grown in size and were using more water all the time.
As a result, Stevensville’s new water right change application which was submitted in 2014 was denied and terminated the following year. The town has been operating 3 of the 4 new wells without a valid water right since then.
Ross Miller, who worked as the town’s water rights attorney from 2007 to 2010, told the council that the Montana Supreme Court recently ruled for the first time ever, in what he called the “Helena case,” indicating that Montana would follow the Growing Community Doctrine, that is a recognition that a water right for a municipality inherently includes the right to “reasonable growth.”
Miller, who worked as in-house attorney for the Mountain Water Company in Missoula after 2010, has been back in private practice for a year and half now. He told the council that he was ready and willing to help the town renew its water rights change application for the well field. He said the process would involve expanding the place of use as well as the amount of water being requested.
According to a recent report in the Missoula Current, the Missoula County Commissioners have awarded a contract to HDR Engineering to assess future water needs in the Lolo area under population projections through 2070. Missoula County director of public works, Greg Robertson, is quoted as saying that the study is a result of the state’s water right adjudication process. He said the Water Court ordered the study to validate the need for the claimed water right in terms of volume.
“It’s not unique to Lolo,” he is quoted as saying, “it just establishes an engineering basis for the claim we have asserted.”
The $8,900 contract involves determining the current population being served and estimating projected growth. Increasing water demand over the next 50 years will be estimated. Robertson added that other communities in the Bitterroot, including Hamilton, Stevensville and Victor, will follow the same process.
Ross told the Stevensville Council that he was ready to initiate some preliminary talks with DNRC about renewing its water right change application immediately. He said they could learn from the previous failed application attempt by examining and addressing the deficiencies that were identified and correct them. He said there may be some opportunity for grants to pursue the applications by including the work in the upcoming water storage project. Plans call for the eventual construction of a water storage tank near the new well field. The town is currently pumping the water to the storage reservoir located two miles up the Burnt Fork.
In other business, the council adopted the Mayor Brandon Dewey’s recommended Employee Reorganization Plan. The plan calls for some changes in job titles and job descriptions designed to better use the knowledge and experience of existing employees and re-distribute the work load in a more efficient and equitable manner. The plan was adopted on a 3 to 1 vote. Councilor Stacie Barker cast the dissenting vote primarily because she objected to the Town Clerk position including administration of the Building and Zoning affairs. The position of Court Clerk was severed from the Town Clerk’s duties and will be a stand-alone part-time position.
Barker said she objected to the Clerk position including the administration of Building and Zoning, “because it’s not her job.”
Some board appointments were also made. Don Lorenzen and Dustin Wood were appointed to the Airport Board and Council President Bob Michalson was re-appointed to serve as the council representative on the Airport Board. Michalson was also re-elected to serve as the Council President. Councilor Robin Holcomb was appointed as representative on the TIFF/TEDD Board. Councilor Barker was re-appointed to serve as council liaison for the Park Board. Loey Knapp was also appointed to the Park Board on a 3 to 1 vote.
A land lease agreement at the airport was unanimously approved.
A draft Code of Conduct was presented to the council and will be placed on the agenda of the next Committee of the Whole meeting for analysis and discussion.
Police Chief James Marble said that application for serving as neighborhood captains in the Stevensville Watch Program were being accepted.
A draft Interlocal Agreement between the Town Volunteer Fire Department and the Rural Volunteer Fire Department is currently being reviewed by the rural district’s board of directors