By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A new report by the Hill County Health Department identifies water availability as the top concern among local residents and health professionals.
The report is based on a survey of residents. Also, 22 health care and social service workers who attended a Sept. 2 meeting of the Hill County Health Consortium unanimously chose water availability as the single most important health factor in Hill County.
The report suggested strategies to address the concern, including lobbying for federal dollars to help Hill County "get or buy more water."
The report also urged that the public be encouraged to practice water conservation.
"We went through everything from hazardous materials to water to affordable housing, just everything," said county sanitarian Clay Vincent, a Health Consortium member. "What it came down to was identifying that if we don't have a dependable water source up here, or decent water, (people) tend not to reside (in such a place) easily."
He added, "Especially with the drought we've been in, it's come to the forefront of people's minds and I think it's something we need to address," Vincent said.
The coalition reached its conclusion as area residents consider two major water projects. A working group headed by Lt. Gov. Karls Ohs is working to secure a congressional appropriation to rehabilitate the aging St. Mary Diversion, a series of canals and pipes that diverts water from the St. Mary River into the Milk River, keeping it flowing year-round.
Congress is expected to fund the huge Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water System, which is expected to provide water from Lake Elwell at the Tiber Dam to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and other residents in north-central Montana. The Havre City Council is also considering whether to get involved in that project.
"Both the St. Mary's Diversion and ... this one from Tiber that would pipe water to Hill County and through the Rocky Boy reservation and to Hi-Line towns" are the biggest issues in finding more water for Hill County, Vincent said.
"We have to protect what we do have and look to the future of where our sources will come from, look at St. Mary's and protect the quality and quantity of water," said Cindy Smith, director of nursing at the County Health Department.
Hill County was one of a dozen Montana counties given grant money to write an environmental health needs assessment. Hill County had $10,000 and one year to begin a program that would draw new conclusions, and reconsider old ones.
The county will submit its completed report to the state and hope that more money follows. Only a portion of the participating counties will get further funding, Smith said.
"From here you can get more grants because you've started," Smith said.
With or without additional funding, the health department and its partners are committed to continue studying environmental health. The ultimate goal is to find correlations between Hill County health problems and environmental risks, a process that requires years, Smith said.
The initial grant was specifically for an assessment of opinions, both lay and professional, Smith said.
"Real data will come down the road," Smith said. "This report gave us what the common concerns are. Next we have to find out the biggest problems."
The first step in assembling the report was to ask citizens their greatest environmental health concerns. Next, the health assessment team gathered all the health and social service professionals in Hill County they could to ask them to prioritize those and other needs. The result, the environmental health needs assessment, was the first item produced in an ongoing study done by the department and health partners in the county.
The county's definition of environmental health includes both the natural environment, including water, soil and air quality; social environment, including public safety, social attitudes and access to services; and infrastructure, including medical services as well as civic structures such as roads and sanitation.
The report identified water availability, medical care availability and indoor air quality as areas where health and social service workers should increase their efforts. The report recommends a lower priority than now assigned to pests, pest-associated disease and groundwater pollution.
"(Pest-carried disease) is a very important topic right now that we are doing a lot about. People see in the news that there is a problem. But the flu is a much greater risk. And nobody talks about cardiovascular diseases, or the need for exercise curriculum in schools," Smith said.
Water availability and medical care availability were priorities for both the public and the professionals. Indoor air quality was a concern raised by the public through the surveys that surprised the professionals. Particularly, the public focused on dangerous molds and radon gas as major concerns, in addition to secondhand smoke.
The public and professionals also listed meth labs as a significant health concern.
The health assessment team noted that water quality was one concern among citizens that that the professionals did not all second, Smith said. The city water quality is good, though concerns over water in outlying areas might be valid, she added.
The report lists some specific actions that the county can take, including lobbying for more water for the community and educating the public about water quality. Each area of environmental concerns contained a few preliminary strategies, but this too is just a start, Smith said.
The goal of studying environmental health is to "make it viable so that when kids grow up they stay here because people here are healthy, and that people come here because it is healthy here," Smith said.