City officials and the Clark Fork Coalition have asked the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) to scrutinize the sale of Missoula's municipal water supplier to the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm, before allowing the deal to go forward.
"Because Missoula's water is privately owned, we rarely get a say on how it's managed," says Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen. "This is a time where we actually do have a say and can have a say. So it's important, we think, for the public to get involved."
The Carlyle Group, which holds $97.7 billion worth of assets across the globe, announced Dec. 22 that it intends to purchase Park Water Co., the parent company of Missoula's water supplier, Mountain Water Company.
In a petition filed in January, Park Water asked PSC not to exert jurisdiction over the sale. The company argues vetting should be left to regulators in California, where Park Water is based.
But both the city and the Clark Fork Coalition, each of which filed petitions to intervene in the last week, express concerns about the deal and say too many questions remain unanswered.
The coalition would like reassurances that Carlyle plans to invest in Missoula's notoriously leaky underground pipes. It also seeks information on how the potential sale could affect Missoula's water rates, already among the state's highest.
Those are questions for Montana regulators to ask, Knudsen says, not the California Public Utilities Commission.
"We believe that there is an important conversation to be had locally about who will own and who will manage Missoula's drinking water," Knudsen says. "It's best done with a Montana utility commission in charge."
The Carlyle Group has said it will comply with whatever regulatory demands are required of it and that Missoula operations will remain unchanged.
"Carlyle believes Mountain Water is a well-managed company with terrific employees and does not intend to make any changes," company spokesman Christopher Ullman told the Independent in January.
Going forward, PSC Commissioner Gail Gutsche says concerns expressed by the city and Clark Fork Coalition will be considered as the regulatory body evaluates whether to exert jurisdiction.
"It's important to hear from interveners," Gutsche says.