By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
For a fee of $20,000, the city of Havre could have gotten in on the ground floor of a water project that will eventually supply a good chunk of north-central Montana with fresh, clean water, and perhaps eliminate concerns about future water supplies.
Havre in 1998 notified the committee planning the Rocky Boy's-North Central Regional Water System that it would not join the system, choosing to expand and upgrade its own water treatment plant instead. The city took out an $8.4 million loan from the state to upgrade the plant.
Dave Peterson, Havre director of public works, said last week that worries about having to cover future costs of the system, which were unknown at the time, as well as uncertainty about how long it would take to complete, and lack of control over water treatment were factors in deciding not to join the regional water project.
Dan Keil, who is co-chair of the coordinating committee for the water system and chairman of the board of the regional water authority that governs the system outside of the reservation, said Havre could have waited to see what happened on those issues before it pulled out.
To join the project, interested water districts had to pay a fee of $6 for each water connection it would need. Havre - which would have needed about $20,000 - decided not to participate, Keil said.
"Each community makes up their own mind," he said.
None of the communities are locked in until construction begins. A request is now before Congress for $15 million, which would be used to start construction next year on the intake system for the water treatment plant at Tiber Dam and for further engineering.
Annmarie Robinson, coordinator for the project, said the authority has asked all of its members to confirm they will be part of the final design no later than October or November.
The window of opportunity to join the project is "short and closing," she added.
Robinson said that if the city had joined the regional water authority from the beginning, the cost of extending the system to Havre would have been included the original authorization request to Congress. That would have made the request about $270 million instead of $229 million, she said, adding that there is no guarantee that Congress would have approved that amount. Of the total $229 million cost, $13.05 million is coming from the state and the users will pay $13.05 million.
The regional water authority will use a loan from the state to pay for its share. The users in the regional system will pay a monthly charge to pay off the loan. The monthly charge is estimated at about $17, although that could change depending on how many users the loan is spread among.
Robinson said that if Havre joined the project now, Congress would be unlikely to increase the authorized amount. That means that Havre would have to come up with the cost of connecting, estimated in 1997 at $34 million.
J.P. Donovan, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said today that adding Havre to the authorization could happen.
"Is it possible? Yes. Would it be easy? No," Donovan said.
He said the only way to add Havre would be to throw out the 2002 authorization and start over "at square one."
Erik Iverson, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said it's too early to tell if Havre could be added. Rehberg would have to look at what adding Havre would do to the size and cost of the system before he could say how likely it would be that Congress would add it to the authorization.
"It's certainly going to impact the project," he said.
If Congress didn't authorize the money, the city could take out a loan to cover the cost of joining, Robinson said. Possible sources for such a loan include the state revolving loan fund, which Havre used to upgrade its water treatment plant. A monthly charge to people who use the system is usually used to pay off the loan.
While there are grants Havre could apply for, most of them are comparatively small, $100,000 to $200,000, Robinson said.
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce President Chuck Wimmer said he thinks the city should find out what it would take to join the system and what the possibilities are.
"It would be nice to see what it would cost and see what it would do to a monthly water bill," he said.