Utility district proposes $5.33M bond for upgrades

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The standpipe tank is pictured near the Bigfork High School football field. (Courtesy Bigfork Water and Sewer District)

To bring Bigfork into state compliance with water-storage requirements for fire emergencies, the Bigfork Water and Sewer District is asking taxpayers within the district to approve a $5.33 million general obligation bond that would fund a new water tank and improve existing storage infrastructure.

If the measure passes, it would increase annual property taxes by $43.94 for a $100,000 home, or $87.88 for an $200,000 home.

The bond will be decided by mail-in election, with ballots going out Jan. 28 and due back Feb. 26.

Bigfork’s water system is impacted especially during the summer months.

“Sometimes when everyone kicks on at once, the wells can’t keep up … and that puts us in alarm condition,” said Julie Spencer, district manager of the Bigfork Water and Sewer District. “We don’t get where we’re running out of water, but if we had a fire, we potentially could.”

The additional tank would add 750,000 gallons to Bigfork’s 350,000-gallon supply, which currently falls short of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality water storage standards. Requirements for storage are based on domestic use and the types of buildings in the district.

“Based on those building types, fire code has a certain amount of water that you need to supply for a certain amount of time in case there’s a fire,” said Jeff Cicon, a project manager with Morrison-Maierle. “There’s areas in Bigfork where there’s a lot of timber. Fire could spread quickly. It’s nice to have sufficient storage to suppress the fire.”

Increased development and an uptick in summertime usage has prompted an increase for Bigfork’s minimum level of stored water — hence the need for a new tank. If the water-storage tank were to be completely emptied in the event of a fire, Cicon said contaminants could be pulled into the system.

“If that were to happen, the district would need to chlorinate the water for a period of time to ensure it was safe for consumption,” he explained in an email. “The new tank would ensure sufficient water supply to make sure such an event does not occur.”

The bond would also fund the installation of a water main to support the added tank, which also would serve as a second transmission line in the Ice Box Canyon area. The current water main runs directly along the road, which would be challenging should the Montana Department of Transportation completed planned repairs to the roadway.

“That would provide a secondary water supply if something were to happen to the existing water supply along Highway 35. If it were to break or MDT needs to take it off-line for period a time, the district can still supply water around that project,” Cicon said. The cost of the new transmission line is $1,266,000.

The third component of the project is lead abatement for the standpipe tank located near the Bigfork High School football field. The paint on the standpipe tank has begun to peel on the outside, which could eventually lead to rust and if untreated, compromise the structure of the tank. If the steel starts to pit, rehabilitation is not possible and the tank would have to be removed, Cicon said.

Paint on the exterior and interior of the tank has also tested positive for lead, so the district is proposing to remove the lead paint and replace it with a safer alternative.

“The paint isn’t peeling on the inside so there’s no immediate health risk right now, but the outside, which is exposed to all the elements and things like that, is starting to peel,” Cicon said.

There are multiple layers of non-lead paint over the layer with lead, and the district tests for the presence of lead and copper in the water supply every three years. Current levels of 8 parts per billion, according to the 2018 consumer confidence report, are below the federal action level of 15, and any lead present in the water is most likely from pipes and fittings, not the tank.

Lead abatement, while important to the health of the water-storage system, is also a costly procedure — rehabilitation for the standpipe tank is estimated at $478,000.

“It’s very expensive to remove all this paint that has lead in it in an environmentally friendly manner,” Cicon explained. “It’s tall — they have to put scaffolding up on both the outside and the inside of the tank … they have to enclose it … so the paint doesn’t get all over and they have to haul all the paint off.”

Spencer said the district doesn’t have the funding to cover the water storage, lead abatement and new transmission line for a number of reasons.

“We had some funds, but when the district took over the system from Pacific Power and Light in the mid-’80s, it was in critical condition,” Spencer said. “We have done a lot of work to improve what we had. There’s stuff that’s almost 100 years old in the ground.”

The district has been using revenue from rates to make improvements on the existing system and uses bonds to fund new infrastructure.

“Projects usually cost between a quarter to half a million dollars … we accumulate for two to three years and then do a project,” she said.

If the bond passes, design would begin as early as April, followed by bidding and then construction, slated for April to November 2021. The project will be funded through state revolving fund dollars — a low-interest loan over a 20-year period.

The district first anticipated a need for additional water storage in 2005 when development began ramping up in Bigfork, and acquired property from the Pierce family to house a future tank. They didn’t tackle the project at the time because the district had other immediate priorities, namely the construction of a new wastewater plant that took precedent over water storage improvements. However, in the ensuing years, the district took steps forward to prepare for the project, including the negotiation of a larger parcel along with an easement for the new transmission line.

If the bond fails, Spencer said the district would fund the project using a revenue bond, which would translate to an estimated monthly rate increase of approximately $17. She hopes to avoid issuing a revenue bond since that would place an unfair burden on the 1,400 residents hooked up to the system, while the entire community would benefit from firefighters having adequate resources in the event of an emergency, Spencer said.

“If you have a well for your water supply and the fire department comes, they can’t connect to your well if your house is on fire,” Cicon noted. “A new tank benefits the entire surrounding community for fire protection, even if you don’t have a fire hydrant or a water service to your house, you benefit from this water infrastructure in your neighborhood that the fire department can go get water and suppress fire.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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