By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Ten months after the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce and others began urging the city of Havre to join a northcentral Montana water project, several City Council members say the issue is dead.
"There's probably a lack of interest to proceed," City Council member Terry Schend said Tuesday.
The Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System, which will be funded through a combination of federal, state and local money, will provide water to about 20,0000 people on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and in 20 communities, water districts and water associations outside the reservation. Lake Elwell water will be treated at Tiber Dam and piped to the distribution systems of the communities and water systems that are part of the regional system.
Havre had been involved in planning the regional system until city officials withdrew in 1997 and decided the city should instead renovate its aging water treatment plant.
The chamber urged the City Council to revisit joining the system, saying several factors could make city water supply in the Milk River less dependable.
The City Council has never taken a vote on whether the city should join the regional water project.
Stockman Bank manager Chuck Wimmer, president of the chamber, said Wednesday he still thinks Havre should look into joining the water system.
"I don't know what can be done if (the council is) not interested. You know, people are afraid of the cost. We don't know what the cost will be," he said. "How we get around that point is beyond me."
A cost estimate most often mentioned for Havre's participation in the project is $34 million, although that number is considered to be on the high side. The cost will be unknown unless Havre pays $20,000 to join the system and an engineering study is done.
Council members said having to repay the $8 million loan Havre took out to upgrade the water treatment plant, and questions about the operation, cost and availability of water from the regional system are keeping Havre from joining it.
Council member Pam Hillery said finding an additional source of water seems like a good idea, but it would be "frustrating having to mothball" the upgraded water treatment plant.
Hillery said the City Council doesn't seem interested in finding answers to questions about joining the system.
"There doesn't seem to be the will to get the answers," she said.
Council member Jack Brandon said he thinks the consensus of the council is that joining the system is not viable.
Schend said paying the $20,000 fee and also committing to paying for the system's construction and operation and maintenance aren't needed. If Havre needs additional water, he said, it can probably use existing wells and drill new wells at a lower cost than joining the regional system.
Schend, Brandon and Hillery all said they are concerned that Havre could lose water rights to the Milk River if it the regional system.
"The city of Havre really doesn't have to buy in because we have water rights to the Milk River," Schend said.
Havre has no water rights to the Milk River, said Marvin Cross of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Havre's water rights are for ground water, including existing wells and reserved rights to drill new wells, he said.
"What they have out of the Milk River is contract rights," Cross said.
Havre in 1992 renewed a 40-year contract with the federal Bureau of Reclamation for water from the Milk River Irrigation Project, which the city uses for its municipal water supply.
Havre has an allotment of about 2,800 acre-feet of water from the Milk, and typically uses about 1,700 acre-feet.
Havre budgets about $12,000 a year to buy water from the Bureau of Reclamation, although the entire amount often is not used.
Lenny Duberstein of the Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday that if Havre withdrew from its contract, the city may have difficulty negotiating a new contract later.
Municipal contracts also have to be approved by irrigators in the Milk River Valley, who are the principal beneficiaries of the Milk River Irrigation Project.
Schend said that if the water from the Milk River is not enough due to drought or some other shortage, the water at Lake Elwell wouldn't be enough either.
"They're both from the same watershed," he said.
Hillery said council members have raised other concerns, such as whether the city would need to retreat the water after it's piped from Tiber Dam.
Annmarie Robinson of Bear Paw Development Corp., who is coordinating the water system, said treating the water again will not be necessary, except for possibly adding more chlorine.
The regional system is designed to monitor the water and provide a chlorine boost at certain points, she said. If the local system has an extensive delivery system, like the 80 miles of pipe in the Loma system, it may need to add additional chlorine at some point.
Wimmer said his concern is for the future and for growth. If the St. Mary Diversion that delivers water to the Milk River fails, or a dam is built on the Milk River in Canada, or another extreme drought dries up the river, that could restrict growth or even cut the water supply below what the city needs, he said.
"It will be a sad day if 20 years down the road we don't have a good supply of water," he said.
Hillery said she thinks it would be good to take a vote on joining the system, just to bring it to closure.
But the lack of interest on the council in joining seems to make that pointless, she added.
"Right now, I don't have any real desire to bring it to the council," Hillery said.
The regional authority had asked for communities to commit to being in the system by this month, so the design of the water treatment plant and intake system at Lake Elwell could begin. However, Congress has not yet authorized money to design the plant.
Robinson said the water authority has extended the deadline for committing to the project indefinitely at this point.
"It's just taking more time than anyone anticipated," she said.