By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Bear Paw Development Corp. is mailing out a survey next week to find out how much interest North Havre has in creating a public water system.
North Havre resident Wayne Koepke, a member of the steering committee the Hill County Commission appointed to assess the interest, said he has seen both support for and opposition to the idea in the area north of the Milk River.
"I would say it's very mixed," he said this morning.
Kelly Walker, who also serves on the committee with his wife, Debbie Walker, said people who live between the river and the railroad tracks have shown interest in a public water system, at least enough to justify the survey.
"Until we get this out, we don't know what kind of interest we have," he said.
Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development, said people expressed interest in a district at a public meeting the County Commission held July 17. About 25 North Havre residents attended the meeting.
The County Commission appointed the steering committee at that meeting. The other members of the steering committee are Ed Spinler and Roy Wodarz.
The survey, which will be mailed out Sept. 2, will be used to determine how large an area might be included in a district if residents want to create one, Robinson said.
"So we just kind of have to define the area," she said.
Walker said the people who said they are interested seem to support the idea because of past contamination of water under the community.
Most people in North Havre use private water wells.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality estimates that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel that spilled or leaked at the railroad yards in North Havre seeped into the groundwater between the 1940s and 1970s. A new contamination associated with a solvent used by railroads was detected last year.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has worked with DEQ to reduce the contamination by diesel and other chemicals, and is negotiating a cleanup plan for the contamination discovered last year. DEQ requires BNSF to test for contaminants in the area every three months.
The railroad settled on July 2 with about 80 North Havre residents who had filed a class-action suit against the company. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
Robinson said if there is enough interest indicated by the surveys, the next step would be holding a petition drive to create a water district. The petition would have to include the proposed boundaries for the water district.
If at least 10 percent of the registered voters with addresses inside the proposed boundaries sign the petition, the county commissioners would start holding public meetings about creating a district, Robinson said.
If an election is held, 40 percent of the registered voters must vote in the election for the votes to qualify. A simple majority of those voters would be needed to create the district.
Robinson said mail-in ballots might be the best way to hold such an election.
If the district is created, the next step would be hiring an engineer to study the area and determine the best water system and its cost, Robinson said. Grants and loans are available to public entities to help pay those costs, she said.
Robinson said the history of well-drilling in the area shows being able to drill a well that could supply the entire community is unlikely.
Possibilities for a water supply include contracting with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to get water out of the Milk River and building a water treatment plant to treat it, or joining the Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water System, which has been authorized by Congress to supply water to about 19,000 people on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and other people in north-central Montana. Havre did not join the regional water system, which is still being designed and hasn't received funding for construction.
Another option would be annexation by the city of Havre. Then North Havre residents would join Havre's water system.
Robinson said anyone who owns property or lives in North Havre and doesn't receive a survey is welcome to get one and fill it out. Bear Paw Development wants to get them back within a week, she added.
The surveys will be mailed out with a postpaid return envelope, to be returned by Sept. 9.