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Water crisis starts to settle down in Polson

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Polson City Manager Ed Meece sounded upbeat late Friday afternoon as the community appeared to be emerging from last week’s water crisis. 

“We’ve recovered a lot of water to the system and a couple of tanks are within four feet of being full,” he said. If that trend continued through the weekend, he was optimistic the city could cautiously resume an every-other-day watering policy this week, with set times in the morning and evening, as well as restrictions on volume. 

Last Monday, 77 households were without water for 12 hours as the city sought to refill severely depleted storage tanks. Meece says a major contributor to the water crunch was automated sprinkler systems that had not been reset to meet water restrictions imposed early in July, often because the owners didn’t know how to change the settings. 

“We would start to build back a little reserve and then, all of a sudden, the sprinklers would kick on at 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning and the bottom would drop out again and we’d lose any gains we made,” he said. 

Last Monday, in crisis mode, the city turned off water to 77 households to resuscitate a critical pumping station on Skyline Drive. In concert with irrigation companies, underground watering systems were turned completely off, as were all accounts with individual water meters devoted solely to sprinkling. 

The city’s four commercial car washes cut back “to half speed at best,” and a broken valve, discovered Monday afternoon, was quickly repaired. 

All those measures have helped restore enough volume to the city’s water system to meet essential demand, including fire protection. Meece notes that the city pumps between 800,000 and 900,000 gallons of water daily. A major structure fire could consume up to 100,000 gallons (as reportedly happened recently in Seeley Lake).

“That’s huge when the system’s flowing good, but if your reserves are low, that’s a whole other issue, especially when it’s as dry as it is,” he said. 

Fire protection “is a big concern,” he added. “We didn’t want to have one big fire and use all the water we have on hand, or a considerable portion of it, and then have other types of system failures.”

In addition to the long spate of hot, dry weather, Meece suspects a deluge of tourists have impacted the water supply. “I don’t think any of us really expected the level of visitation we’ve had this summer from outside the community.”

A critical component moving forward is connecting an eighth water well to the city’s water system. That well was already dug, and the city received an emergency go-ahead from the state last week to connect it to the water main that runs along U.S. Highway 35. 

“We’ve been ordering pipe, ordering pumps and lining up contractors so we can hopefully start putting a hole in the ground next week,” said Meece. He expects to have that well online in three weeks.

However, he notes, the city can’t expect to pump itself out of the water shortage. Conservation, especially during a drought, is a crucial part of the picture.  

“There’s more we can do and should do,” he said. Among those steps is “making sure everyone is on same page with system settings” for automatic watering, and drafting ordinances that limit outdoor water consumption “so you can water your grass but you can’t flood your grass every night.”

On a positive note, Meece says the community “has been incredibly cooperative. We had 77 homes with no water for 12 hours and I heard only one complaint.” 

“Last weekend when people saw this was really going to be serious, they really jumped on and said, ‘OK, I’m shutting it off, turning it down,’” he said, including “several folks who wanted to comply – they just didn’t know how.”

Keep up to date on the city’s water emergency at

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