by Pete Talbot

So utility companies can claim eminent domain over private property but citizens (i.e.: our local government) can’t claim eminent domain over utilities.

I’m talking about our water.  The stuff we drink, cook with, bath in and use to water our gardens.

This is a screwy deal.  Missoula’s privately-owned Mountain Water Company can sell our resource — the aquifer that sits beneath us and the streams that flow from our mountains — to a multi-billion dollar private equity firm.

Meanwhile, our vaunted state legislature passes a bill that allows utility companies to exert eminent domain on private property owners so these corporations can build pipe and power lines anywhere they please.

Our legislature didn’t see fit to grant these same powers to citizens so they could control their own resource destiny.

I know it’s more complicated than that.  A city can invoke eminent domain but it costs many thousands of dollars, takes years and the outcome is uncertain.  From the Missoulian:

It took the town of Felton, Calif., population 6,000, five years to gain public ownership of its water. Felton’s water had always been privately owned, bouncing from company to company. The final straw came when owner American Water requested a huge rate increase.

So the City, with assistance from the Clark Fork Coalition, has entered into negotiations to have the right of first refusal if and when the Carlyle Group sells.  I call this a fallback position.  I applaud the coalition’s and the city’s efforts, but it seems so after-the-fact because the sale to the city hinges on the “if and when,” and, of course, what sort of mark up Carlyle will want in the sale.  Carlyle isn’t known for its philanthropy.

Now the Montana Public Service Commission has a role in all this but it’s not clear how many legal teeth the PSC has for mitigating the sale — what sort of caveats in can impose — or could it, indeed, stop the sale (which is doubtful).

The Missoulian is doing a good job giving us background and following the story.  Start here and also take a look at the related stories.  I’m waiting for that hard-hitting editorial demanding public ownership of our water, though.

In the meantime, be thankful that air isn’t for sale.  If so, the Carlyle Group would be buying it up and under current statutes, there’d be little we could do about it.

It’s enough to make a mellow guy like me into a radical.

  1. ladybug

    The air is already a free-fire zone for polluters who “externalize” the cost of cleanup to maximize private profits. Think quality, not just quantity, and there is damn little left that has not already been “bought” by profiteers for pennies on the dollar — if not outright subsidized by local, state and federal taxdollars.

    • petetalbot

      That thought crossed my mind as soon as I typed the “air isn’t for sale” line, ladybug. It’s a little different than the outright ownership of water but I get your point.

  2. Turner

    Just a reminder: tomorrow is the last day to turn in petition signatures for IR 125, the initiative that would overturn HB 198. HB 198 became the law giving energy companies eminent domain rights over private property.

    The real motive behind HB 198, of course, was to clear away obstacles to the ruinous power line projects planned by the power companies.

  3. Turner

    Reminder: tomorrow is the last day to turn in petition signatures for IR 125, the initiative measure to reverse HB 198. In the last session, HB 198 became the law that gave power companies, and other corportations, eminent domain rights over private property.

    It’s really a law to make those opposing MSTI and MATL impotent.

  4. The City did not stand up to offer even mild resistance to the sale of our water to corporate holders.

    Every city council person, except for Dick Haines, with whom I happen to agree with on this issue, voted to voice their official support to the PSC on behalf of the City of Missoula despite the overwhelming lack of support that the citizens of the City of Missoula have for the sale.

    Lack of support that they articulated in overwhelming public comment prior to the council’s vote.

    The city – us…we’re going to get screwed. Carlyle Group signed an agreement to “negotiate in good faith.” While they had a large roundabout discussion on what it means – what it means is that they’ll negotiate. They have a monopoly and they have an expressed goal of making money and that “good faith’ negotiation will be taking all that into consideration when er we’re in court bickering over a price.

    Either that or we’ll be paying a fortune for it. A fortune.

    Regardless, we’ll be in court or some other dire situation with this issue 8 years from now just like we were with Osprey Stadium after that original agreement.

    An agreement that they couldn’t meet – so what did we do? We made another agreement with them that required them to pay more than the first agreement (which they couldn’t afford.)

    Yeah. We’ll see how that works out.

  5. d.g.

    One wonders why Talbot entered the top-shelf condominium-building gambit in the Rattlesnake Valley…..seems the deer rather liked those plots of grassy retreat from the congested building. Is money that tight?

    • petetalbot

      Hey, d.g., if you don’t have anything relevant to add, don’t add anything at all. (I’m thinking of changing your initials from d.g. to d.b. — as in douche bag).

      I’ve blocked one person at 4&20 in the five years I’ve contributed here. Your looking at becoming #2.

  6. John Hughes

    For Pete’s sake, Pete. The premise of this blog isn’t remotely true. It wasn’t when it was written and isn’t today.

    You say, “Missoula’s privately-owned Mountain Water Company can sell our resource — the aquifer that sits beneath us and the streams that flow from our mountains — to a multi-billion dollar private equity firm.”

    Are you kidding? Where in any credible document or statement has anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about said anything about MWC owning the aquifer? That’s totally, unquestionably false. Even city officials would laugh at you for that mistake.

    In fact Mountain doesn’t even own the water. They own rights to serve a portion of the aquifer water to the citizens of Missoula through their pipes and pumps. The Montana constitution guarantees that they can’t use that water for something else, because it’s not their water. It’s your water.

    If they owned “the aquifer,” they’d probably have something to say about the dozens of other private water systems that tap into the aquifer in the Missoula valley (private wells, homeowner groups etc.).

    The law is very clear on this. You’re apparently not. You should at least run a correction since your basic facts are wrong. And you should be embarrassed for being this far off base, and for trying to push more traffic to it during the eminent domain case, years after you should have gotten this figured out if you’re actually paying attention.

    Water rights are an element of the case and I’m not denying it. It’s an important case for sure, and people should be paying attention. But leading them to believe it’s about owning “the water” when it’s about owning the water system that was built and funded by a private company (only part of which involves water rights) is not helping to framing the dialogue.

    – John

    • larry kurtz

      I pushed Pete’s post into the Mountain Water case: note that it was written in 2011. This case is being neglected by the current manager currently at odds with Mr. Talbot.

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