Whitefish implementing water conservation measures that include limiting watering of lawns

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Water goes through the treatment process at the City of Whitefish water treatment plant. The city draws its water from Haskill Basin and Whitefish Lake. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish is implementing a suite of water conservation measures set to go into effect this summer, including regulating when folks can water their lawns.

Whitefish City Council on May 20 approved a water conservation ordinance that prohibits all outdoor water during the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. year round. The ordinance implements general water conservation measures that are always in effect, and emergency measures that would be triggered only when certain conditions exist.

Public Works Director Craig Workman explained the ordinance saying it’s designed to help conserve water and assist the city as it has struggled during peak summer months to keep up with current water use demand.

“We need to think of this as how do we waste less water,” Workman said. “These general measures are just wise ways to conserve water.”

Depending on precipitation and temperate, water used for irrigation in the city can be as high as 21 percent of the overall yearly water produced, according to the city.

In addition to the time restriction for outdoor watering, the ordinance also requires commercial lodging establishments to provide guest the option of choosing not to have linens washed every day, irrigation watering could not result in coverage of pavement areas or result in excess runoff, and the city’s utility billing department may conduct water audits of usage on any account and require modifications as appropriate to conserve water.

Those found violating the general conservation restrictions will be issued a warning for the first offense, followed by a $25 fine for each subsequent offense.

The ordinance was spurred in part by the state notifying the city that its water treatment plant is exceeding capacity. Expanding population, tourism and recent hotter, drier summers have resulted in the city’s water treatment plant exceeding its capacity limits set by the state, Workman noted.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently notified the city that water main extensions and subdivision connections or other services that increase demand or expand the city’s water service area will not be accepted until the city evaluates its water system capacity.

Workman said the goal of the ordinance is to conserve water, which can be considered an interim additional water source until new water sources are developed and brought online. Although infrastructure upgrades are planned to the system, Workman noted, additional water supply won’t be in place for two to three years.

Under the ordinance, further restrictions on water usage would also be implemented depending on the severity of conditions.

A Stage I water shortage would be declared if all four of the water treatment filtration trains at the city water plant are in use or if Flathead County is in extreme drought as reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Three of the past four summers we have used all four treatment trains,” Workman said. “It seems pretty likely that will we hit that in the next few summers before we can expand the water plant.”

Under Stage I, additional restrictions include watering being limited to two days per week and prohibited all together on Mondays. Homes with odd-numbered addresses could water on Saturday and Wednesday, and even-numbered addresses on Sunday and Thursday. Multi-unit, homeowners associations, commercial and government properties could water on Tuesday and Friday.

No new turf planting would be permitted, exterior water features would be required to be turned off, and car washing would be prohibited except at commercial car wash facilities.

Violation of Stage I restrictions would be a fine of not less than $50 and not more than $300 for the first offense, increasing by an additional $50 for each subsequent offense.

Stage II water shortage would be declared if there is a critical water supply infrastructure failure or portions or all of the county is in exceptional drought. There would be a nearly complete ban on all outdoor watering, no new landscaping would be permitted, and there would be an almost complete ban on washing of vehicles, pavement and exteriors of buildings.

“The odds of this being triggered is fairly minimal,” Workman said of Stage II.

The fine for violating Stage II restrictions would be a fine of not less than $100 and of more than $500 minim for the first offense, increasing by an additional $100 for each subsequent offense.

Even during water restrictions, an exception would be allowed for watering of home and community gardens, and all boat and trailer decontamination would be permitted to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. Other exceptions include supervised maintenance of automatic sprinkler systems, and a commercial outdoor water use permit may be issued by the city to businesses that can’t continue their operations without the use of outdoor water.

Whitefish currently operates a 4 million gallon per day water treatment plant that treats water from Second and Third creeks in Haskill Basin and during peak usage times draws from Whitefish Lake. DEQ rates the water plant at a capacity of 3 million gallons per day, and recently informed the city about its concern that the city is approaching its threshold for storage and capacity.

The City of Whitefish is looking to develop additional capacity at the water treatment plant, evaluating the feasibility of a groundwater source and looking at options to increase water storage capacity.

Workman said staff has set out an aggressive timeline to have an expanded water treatment plant into service by the end of 2021. The current estimated cost for the group of projects necessary to increase the source, treatment capacity and storage capacity is $18 million.

The city itself has already undertaken a broad suite of conservation efforts to lower water usage and reduce water loss, according to Workman.

“Among the most effective conservation efforts are continued replacement of old cast iron water mains and implantation of irrigation user rate increase,” Workman said. “Data from the last two years indicates that the city has been very effective in reducing water loss from 2016 to 2018.”

Water loss from January 2017 to 2019 was reduced by 68 percent and total daily water produced per capita has decreased over 50 gallons from 2015 to 2019, according to the city.

The city’s recent utility rate analysis determined that non-irrigation revenues were subsidizing irrigation use. To correct this the city enacted a base and volumetric rate increase to balance irrigation user costs and production costs.

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