PSC investigating North Star after homes abruptly lose water

Posted at 7:38 PM, Sep 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-02 11:39:01-04

HELENA — The Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) has opened an investigation into what led to theloss of water to the North Star Subdivision on Sunday Aug. 30.

The PSC will be holding a show and cause hearing on Friday Sep. 11 for North Star to answer questions about the incident.

Around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, North Star sent out an email notifying residents that water would be shut off at 11:00 p.m until 6:00 a.m. so that the holding tank could recharge.

However, homes lost water about an hour and a half earlier than the planned shut off.

“We’re sorry that they had a problem but we did post signs,” said Doug Peterson, co-partner of North Star Subdivision. “However, the signs said eleven at night to six in the morning and we just ran out of water before that.”

MTN was shown the digital water gauge on the North Star water system. The gauge clearly showed the holding tank ran completely out of water shortly after 9:00 p.m. on Sunday.

The subdivision was under lawn watering restrictions, and North Star believes the water shortage is a direct result of some residents not following watering conservation.

“The wells are pretty good ones,” said Peterson. “They’re deep and they do real well, but there’s only so much water they can pump out.”

At the Emergency PSC meeting on Tuesday regarding North Star, homeowners said they were upset with the quality of service provided by North Star and want to see change.

North Star Resident Derek Oestreicher told MTN he believes the ultimate reason for the water trouble is mismanagement by North Star.

“They had an even/odd watering sign posted on Sunday, so the folks that were watering were following the rules,” said Oestreicher. “This isn’t on the community, this is on the owners who haven’t invested in a system and only have half the wells operational. This isn’t about the neighborhood not following rules.”

North Star says they are unable to activate all their wells due to the impact it would have on the aquifer.

The area the subdivision is located in has had a history of groundwater challenges.

Lewis and Clark County Hydrogeologist James Swierc told MTN a monitoring well on the other side of Montana Ave. from North Star Subdivision has been showing a steady decline over recent years.

“Just looking at the seasonal highs in the spring we’re seeing that those are declining about 10-15 feet per year, since 2014 when we started to measure the water levels from the monitoring well,” said Swierc.

Rocky Mountain Operations maintains the water system for North Star, and says the current active well can meet the needs of the community as long as people are following water restrictions at the end of the summer.

“Out of ten moths of the year there’s no issue with water,” said Rocky Mountain Operations Manager Tyler Stuck. “That’s because their average usage is around 80,000 to 90,000 gallons a day. Once summer comes and people start watering their yards, that usage goes up to 300,000 to 400,000 gallons a day.”

According to Stuck, North Star had been in contact with the previous owner of his company prior to the water shut off notification but he wasn’t made aware until homes were without water.

Stuck says they tested the system after the water came back on to make sure there weren't any backflow issues that would create a health hazard.

No water also meant the fire hydrants in the neighborhood didn’t have any water.

West Valley Fire Chief Jerry Shepherd told MTN because of the area they service, they’re used to needing to bring their own water in case of a fire. His primary concern is the potential public health risks associated with water getting turned off.

“Without running water your sewer is no longer working, that’s the part that concerns me for the people that are living up there,” said Shepherd.

Shepherd also expressed his frustration in not being informed directly about the water being shut off.

North Star said they reached out to West Valley Fire but were unable to contact them on Sunday. They were able to connect with the Sheriff's Office, and a deputy was able to contact Shepherd.

A big concern by many is that the water shut off will happen again.

North Star has restricted the watering of lawn for the immediate future, but admit they can’t stop anyone from breaking the rule.

As a private organization and not a homeowners association, North Star doesn’t have any real way to enforce fines or other penalties on people that aren’t following lawn watering guidelines.

“It would be nice if the Public Service Commission would give us the ability to monitor these things and to control them with fines, with turning off water and so on with these repeat offenders that don’t play by the rules,” said Peterson.

The water issues at North Star Subdivision will not be fixed overnight. However, both parties say they want to see a resolution.

North Star told MTN they are open to selling the water system to the homeowners association, but haven’t had much contact with them regarding the matter.

Oestreicher says he’d prefer the homeowners took control of the system, as long as North Star is willing to sell for an agreeable price.

“Certainly we have more skin in the game and we believe we could operate and manage the system much better than they have,” said Oestreicher. “But the problem is they're not willing to honor what they’ve put in writing in terms of the price for this system.”