Havre Daily News
CHINOOK - Republican candidate for governor Bob Brown wants to tap coal tax money to help rebuild the St. Mary Diversion, which keeps the Milk River flowing year-round.
"I think that's the best way to do it," Brown said Wednesday.
Democratic candidate Brian Schweitzer opposes diverting money that would otherwise go into the coal tax trust fund, his spokesman, Harper Lawson, said.
"The coal trust is the most successful investment in the history of our state," he said.
Brown, Montana's secretary of state, made his proposal Wednesday at a meeting in Chinook of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group. Both candidates were invited to speak to the group Wednesday. Schweitzer said last week he couldn't attend because of prior commitments.
Schweitzer, who met with representatives of the working group in Havre on July 30, said rebuilding the diversion would be a priority for him.
"Nothing is more important than water," he said. "The federal government has a responsibility for reinvesting in the lifeline of the Hi-Line."
Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs in November created the working group to find ways to pay for repairing the nearly 100-year-old St. Mary facilities, which divert water from Lake Sherburne and the St. Mary River into a canal system that transports the water 29 miles to the North Fork of the Milk River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the diversion, has estimated the cost of repairing the facilities at $100 million.
The diversion supplies 70 percent of the water in the Milk River in most years, and more than 90 percent of the water in extremely dry years. The diversion was authorized in 1903 to provide water for irrigators, but also provides water for Havre, Chinook, Harlem, Fort Belknap, the Hill County Water District west of Havre and the North Havre Water District.
Randy Reed of Chinook, who co-chairs the working group with Ohs, said the support of Gov. Judy Martz and Ohs has been crucial and the group hopes the next governor will continue that support.
"It's really what got this project off and going," he said. "We need to try to leap to the next governor."
Reed said if the diversion fails, virtually no one could survive in the area.
"This project is much bigger than us," he said. "Going a season without water would destroy north Montana."
Brown said that if he is elected he would use coal tax revenue to provide the state's match for federal funding to rehabilitate the St. Mary project. The amount the state would have to pay is not yet known.
Brown said using the $15 million in coal tax revenue that now goes into the trust each year as matching funds for federal appropriations for infrastructure projects would generate more money than the trust now earns in interest.
"We'll probably get more bounce for the buck if we use it for infrastructure," he said.
He said using coal tax money for long-term funding of the rehabilitation is the best vehicle. Depending on the Legislature to appropriate the money every session is risky, he added.
Brown said he thinks the Legislature will approve his proposal.
"That's a big order, but we've got a big important project," he said.
Schweitzer's spokesman said he doubts the Legislature would approve Brown's proposal, meaning that question would have to go to voters in 2006. He noted that voters in 1992 rejected an initiative by a 57 to 43 margin that would have capped the fund.
Lawson said limiting the amount of money going into the trust would hurt future income from the fund, Lawson said.
Income from the coal tax trust fund is used for a variety of projects, including helping communities impacted by coal bed methane development, making grants to communities for infrastructure projects including water and sewer projects, sidewalks and bridges, and providing money for regional water systems.
"They're not only raiding the cookie jar, they're breaking the jar," he said.
The working group has requested a $9.5 million federal appropriation to pay for a study of the diversion, including ways to spread the cost so the irrigators don't have to pay the entire bill. Under the 100-year-old authorization, irrigators are responsible for all operating, maintenance and repair costs. The appropriation would also create a $5 million fund to use for emergency repairs.
Martz has pledged $100,000 in state funds if local groups can match that amount to pay for a preliminary study to lay the groundwork for the main study.
Working group coordinator Paul Azevedo of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said contributions and pledges from the Milk River irrigators, the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited and other Montana chapters, and from state and county governments appears to have raised the $100,000, he said.
On the Net: St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group: www.dnrc.state.mt.us/stmarycover.htm