HELENA — A long-running dispute between residents of a North Helena Valley subdivision and their water provider is set to go back before the Montana Public Service Commission this week, though the commission may not take immediate action.
The PSC asked North Star Development to come up with an emergency plan for limiting water consumption in the North Star subdivision off Montana Avenue, which includes just under 300 residential customers.
North Star Development and Rocky Mountain Operators – the contractor that runs the subdivision’s water system – currently have a “no outdoor watering” policy in place, restricting watering lawns and other uses outside the home. Initially they proposed issuing termination notices to customers who didn’t abide by that policy. Many residents said that plan was too harsh.
Now, the utility says it’s withdrawing that proposal and looking at other options.
In an order issued last month, the PSC said they had looked at four years of water use data and concluded shortages would be likely during the summer months, unless North Star took steps to ensure residents conserved. They directed the operator to reduce overall water use to less than 91,000 gallons a day, which they said would be enough for customers’ in-home needs.
North Star responded to the PSC July 7, saying they and RMO have no way to limit the amount of water going to each individual home, so their only way to reduce consumption was to enforce the “No Watering” policy. They proposed issuing notices of termination to homeowners who continued to water – possibly turning off service if someone didn’t respond to the second notice.
The utility announces water restrictions by placing a “No Watering” sign at two entrances to the subdivision. In an affidavit to the PSC, Rocky Mountain Operators manager Tyler Stuck said they restricted all watering at the end of June, but that he saw a number of houses still watering their lawns several days later.
“I think it would be very unfortunate if any homeowner’s water access had to be terminated and RMO would make every effort to avoid this situation,” he said. “However, in the end it is up to the homeowner to recognize his or her obligation to the common good and thereby avoid termination.”
Residents in the North Star subdivision say they were taken aback by the proposal. Homeowner Derek Oestreicher said he and most of his neighbors are already doing a lot to cut back their water use, pointing to his own and other homes with brown lawns.
“We’ve taken some pretty drastic measures to ensure that we can water flowers: saving bathtub water, using water bottles that may be left over, only watering when we are allowed to,” he said. “We are cutting back, and our lawn – or lack thereof – is evidence of it.”
Oestreicher said residents understand there may be a need for water restrictions, but they believe the threat to cut off service is excessive – especially since customers would have to file a request with the PSC to have water turned back on, and it could take a week or longer.
“It could literally leave people out to dry,” said Oestreicher.
PSC staff responded to North Star’s plan in a memo filed July 21. They agreed that, since not all customers in the subdivision have individual water meters, North Star doesn’t have a better way to monitor use and the “No Watering” rule is reasonable. However, they recommended a different enforcement procedure: Instead of sending a termination notice for the first violation, they suggested increasing fines for the first three violations, followed by a shutoff after the fourth. They also said the operator would need photos or other proof of a violation before levying a fine.
Under the staff proposal, fines would begin at $250, then rise to $500 and $1,000. They identified a “most non-compliant scenario,” in which a customer who continued to water would incur $6,750 in fines and have their water shut off after eight days.
On July 22, North Star’s attorney, Jonathan Motl, filed a new response with the PSC, saying that they had seen the response from commission staff and from homeowners and would withdraw their original plan. Instead, Motl said they will develop a new proposal intended to allow enough water for in-home use and for hand-watering gardens and landscaping, while putting in fines and eventual termination for homeowners who continue to operate sprinklers during “No Watering” periods.
Oestreicher said he had just as many concerns about the PSC staff’s proposal as the original from North Star.
“You might end up being in compliance when you start your sprinklers, and then if you leave on vacation and those restrictions change, you could come back from vacation and have your water shut off, with a hefty fine,” he said.
He said he wants the PSC to take a different approach: possibly instituting a tiered rate structure in which water rates are higher for those who use more.
Oestreicher said residents feel they haven’t had enough communication with North Star or RMO, and that there is significant mistrust in the community. Homeowners have reported water service interruptions several times in the last year, and many believe the utility hasn’t taken steps that could ensure more reliable service.
“When you look around at other neighborhoods adjacent to us and you see folks with green lawns, watering midday – there’s water underneath us,” he said.
North Star and RMO argue in their filings that there isn’t an issue with water supply, except during the summer when demand spikes because of outdoor watering. They said they have worked to resolve all service outages as quickly as possible.
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.
The PSC is scheduled to hold a work session on the North Star case Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m. However, a spokesperson for the commission told MTN, because of the new filing from North Star Development, it’s possible commissioners will not take action Tuesday.
Tyler Stuck declined to comment for this story, because legal proceedings are ongoing.