By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
North Havre residents will have an opportunity Thursday to demonstrate whether they're interested in a public water system.
The Hill County Commission has set a public meeting on the subject at 7 p.m. in the Holiday Village Shopping Center community room.
"We're not pushing for it. We just thought it was ample time, maybe, for the people to consider something," commission chair Pat Conway said Monday.
Conway said Commissioner Kathy Bessette and Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp., set up the meeting after people from North Havre talked to Bessette about their water problems.
Bessette and Commissioner Doug Kaercher are in Milwaukee for a meeting of the National Association of Counties today.
Robinson said she cannot attend the meeting Thursday, but Anne Booth of the PhilCo Economic Growth Council in Malta will attend. Booth is experienced in working on water projects, Robinson said.
She said the purpose of the meeting is to discuss what can be done to improve the water supply in the community. The county and Bear Paw are not advocating any particular action, she added.
There is no public water source in North Havre. Most residents obtain their water from private wells, Conway said.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has determined that leaks of diesel fuel and other chemicals from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway over the years have contaminated groundwater under North Havre. BNSF started to remediate the contamination in the 1980s, and continues to work with DEQ on the problem.
The company on July 2 settled a class action suit filed by some 80 residents of North Havre who had sought damages resulting from the contamination. The amount of the out-of-court settlement was not disclosed.
DEQ requires BNSF to periodically test the drinking water supply to make sure it has not been contaminated.
The key to creating a public water supply in North Havre is for the residents to get organized, Robinson said. Once the community is organized, it can hire an engineer to look at all of the options available to provide public water, she said.
One of the costs to provide public water will be building a distribution system, which doesn't exist in North Havre. Grants and low-interest loans are available to do that, Robinson said, but a public body has to be created to apply for the grants or loans.
Robinson, who is attending public meetings this week about the Rocky Boy/Northcentral Montana Regional Water System, said joining that system is one potential source of water for North Havre.
The regional water system would provide water from Lake Elwell in Liberty and Toole counties to about 19,000 people in north-central Montana. The water, which will be treated at a plant near Tiber Dam, will be transported to water distribution systems on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and communities and water districts outside the reservation.
Congress has authorized the project, and HKM Engineering of Billings is working on a final engineering report. Once the report and all required environmental studies are completed, Congress will be asked to appropriate money to build the system, estimated to cost $219 million.
Robinson said the authorization for the project is for the communities that have already joined the project. If communities or water districts drop out of the project, or enough savings can be found in the project design, North Havre might be able to join the system, she said.
Another possibility would be joining the city of Havre's water supply, which is taken from the Milk River and treated. But North Havre residents would have to be willing to be annexed into the city, she said. Havre requires that communities or households receiving Havre's public water are annexed, she said.
The community could also form a water district, similar to the district that provides water to western Hill County, Robinson said. The Hill County Water District pumps water from Fresno Reservoir to many households and communities west of Havre. The district is one of the communities and districts that are joining the regional water system.
Again, the question is one of organization and the desire to form a district, Robinson said.
"A water district would work great over there, but to create the water district there need to be people willing to do the work. We can't do the work for them," she said.