In Missoula, Montana, where towering mountains abut a youthful college town, A River Runs Through It is something of a sacred text. The Norman Maclean novella is a semiautobiographical account of a Presbyterian family praying and fly-fishing their way through the early 20th century in the still-wild West. You can hardly talk about this place without someone mentioning the story, made famous by Robert Redford’s film adaptation. And for good reason—the tale is witty and tragic, and it evokes all that is lovely about small-town life amid trout-thick rivers and forests full of wildlife. Maclean ends his work with this image:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time…. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.
It’s a poetic conclusion, but, the fact is, you won’t find words underneath the rivers and rocks here. Instead, you’ll find a rich aquifer filled with fresh snowmelt and rainfall that supplies drinking water to more than 50,000 people. For more than a hundred years, the utility that pumps and distributes that water to the city’s citizens has been held in private ownership, passing every so often from one set of profit-seeking investors to the next—until now.
On June 22, Missoula’s leaders officially took possession of Mountain Water Company, ending a long campaign to control their community’s most important resource. That campaign began in 2014, when Missoula and its long-time mayor, John Engen, believing that water distribution and management should be in the hands of the people, launched a determined legal battle to win control of the city’s local utility. It was a risky gambit, fraught with political and financial peril: Missoula’s foe was one of Wall Street’s wealthiest private-equity firms, the Carlyle Group, which owned the water utility. The fight that followed was fierce, a conflict of attrition featuring allegations of fraud and duplicitous dealing. Its outcome, however, offers lessons to other communities across the country, and especially in the arid American West, that want to defend their future by controlling their most cherished resource.
There aren’t many feel-good tales that pit a small city against a financial giant, but this is one of them.
Everyone was surprised when the Carlyle Group came to town. “Surprise, shock, all of that,” says Karen Knudsen, the executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, a leading water-conservation organization in the region. “Nobody saw it coming.”
It started when Robert Dove, the managing director of Carlyle’s infrastructure fund, came to western Montana to meet the mayor in December 2010. Engen, a big man with a goatee who favors plaid shirts and fleece vests, says he welcomed the East Coast executive into his corner office at City Hall.
“He was coming to tell me Carlyle was buying the water system,” Engen says. “It was, in effect, a fait accompli, and it was completely unexpected.”