By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The Martz administration plans to ask a legislative committee this month to endorse a request to tap a special account to help launch efforts to save a key source of water for the Hi-Line, the St. Mary Diversion.
Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs will make the pitch for spending $100,000 from the environmental contingency account, which was created to deal with emergencies that threaten the environment, for initial engineering work needed before the deteriorating water system can be renovated.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the project in the early 1900s to transfer water from the St. Mary River to the Milk River through a 30-mile-long series of canals and siphons. The aging network provides as much as 95 percent of the Milk River water in dry years, supplying drinking water to 14,000 people in Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Fort Belknap, and irrigation for 140,000 acres of farmland.
''That whole part of Montana is dependent on this diversion system for their livelihood,'' Ohs said Monday.
John Tubbs, chief of the Resource Development Bureau in the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the 85-year-old water system is in poor shape and repairs need to be done quickly.
''The condition is such that a failure can occur at any time,'' he said. ''You can't let this thing fail.''
The Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for the system, has said improvements are not on its national priority list. So the state has decided to take the lead in doing something about the deteriorating system on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Tubbs said.
The $100,000 from the contingency account would be matched with an equal amount from the affected cities and counties along the Hi-Line, Walleyes Unlimited and irrigators. The $200,000 would be used to hire an engineering firm, inspect the facilities, review what the Bureau of Reclamation has done so far and determine what still needs to be done, Tubbs said.
Without that money, any progress toward actual repairs would be delayed a year, until the next Legislature can provide the state funding, he said.
Tubbs said Gov. Judy Martz has decided the money won't be spent now without approval from the panel of lawmakers.
But getting support from the Legislative Finance Committee for using the state money may be difficult, he added.
Greg Petesch, chief attorney for the Legislature, has questioned whether the proposed use of the money meets the legal requirement to be an ''unanticipated public need.''
Since the need for repairs on the system was raised during the 2003 Legislature, ''the repairs can hardly be unanticipated,'' he said in a letter to the Legislative Fiscal Division reviewing the issue.
Tubbs said the state's congressional delegation supports a request for $9.5 million in federal funds that would be used to develop a state-tribal plan for fixing the system and to do $5 million in emergency repairs.
Under the best scenario, that money would be available next spring. If additional federal money can be obtained, large-scale rehabilitation work could start as early as 2007, he said.
Estimates put the total price tag at $90 million to $100 million, but Tubbs said no one is sure what the cost will be.