Havre Daily News
GREAT FALLS - Havre Mayor Bob Rice brought questions to Tuesday's meeting with the coordinating committee of the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water Project, and he got some answers he liked. He discovered, among other things, that the city may not be forced to close the water treatment plant it has paid millions to upgrade if it joins the regional water project.
"Today has probably been the most refreshing period I've had on this whole project," Rice said at the close of the meeting. "I now have enough wisdom to go back and express an opinion."
Rice offered that opinion today in an interview. "Whatever's good for Havre, I'm for," he said. "If they have given us the flexibility to use all or part of this, or not close our water plant down, then I have a whole different perspective on it. It would be advantageous for us to take a real hard look at it. They're giving us a little latitude on it and I think we should seriously consider it."
The regional water system has been authorized by Congress with a price tag of $229 million. As it stands now, the system will bring treated water to more than 18,000 people across north-central Montana from Lake Elwell. Havre opted out of the project, without a vote of the Havre City Council, in 1997 and decided to upgrade the city's treatment plant.
The city began reconsidering the decision to join early last year after members of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns over the city's water supply.
One of the main concerns for some city administrators and Havre City Council members has been whether the city would have to close the treatment plant if it joined the regional water project. The city makes annual payments of $680,000 and still has about $9 million in principal and interest to pay off over the next 18 years.
Bear Paw Development Corp. official Annmarie Robinson, who is coordinating the regional project, said today the coordinating committee has always worked with the assumption that the system would be the sole provider of water for the communities involved.
It has several reasons: If contamination were found in the system, it would be more difficult to trace back to a source if more than one treatment plant were involved. Also, the operating and maintenance costs of the Rocky Boy's system will be spread out among the users, so if a community elected to continue using its own plant, it would be stuck with the cost of repairs and upgrades on two systems.
Members of the regional water authority and the Chippewa Cree Tribe seemed willing Tuesday to consider the alternative of allowing Havre to continue to use its own water plant in some way, Robinson said.
Committee co-chair Dan Keil said during the meeting that the city needs to pay the $21,000 "good intent" fee - which Rice confirmed was mailed on Monday - in order for an engineering study to go forward, as well as provide the group with the information it needs, and come up with the scenarios it wants Billings-based HKM Engineering to look at.
One of the questions is whether the city will want the system to provide all of the water it needs or a portion of its daily use.
"You need to talk to your staff and see, do we go 25 percent, do we go 50 percent, do we go 100 percent?" Keil told Rice. He said the committee had been unwilling to consider alternatives in the past because it had not yet received congressional authorization.
"We need to proceed," Keil said. "We still have a window where we can bring Havre into the process."
Project engineer Gary Elwell said that once the city provides the daily average and peak water usage rates from the last decade, he can begin work on the study to see what costs would be associated with the different possibilities Havre presents.
Rice said the city would provide the information shortly.
Elwell said after the meeting that he would prefer to keep the city's water treatment plant and the Rocky Boy's system separate, but would be willing to consider different possibilities.
"(Those possibilities) are the kind of information we would need to get from the city," he said.
During the meeting, Elwell said engineering studies have identified cost savings in different components of the system. Those savings could be used to offset the price tag Havre would have to pay to join. In addition, there are several avenues the city could explore with the tribe and water authority to either refinance the city's loan on the water plant or apply for debt forgiveness through the state, he said.
Elwell also noted that, while the committee will be looking for a solid commitment in a matter of months from all of the communities involved, none of the communities, including Havre, would have to begin paying their share of the construction costs until the water is brought to their doorsteps.
Rocky Boy water resources director Jim Morsette said he looked forward to exploring the possible solutions necessary to bring Havre on board. The window of opportunity for the city is closing, however.
"We're in the final stages now," he said. "We have to have some kind of decision soon."
Morsette said the tribe and the water authority have long followed the deliberations going on at the city, in hopes of getting Havre to join.
"We've really been dealing with a ghost for 10 years," he said. "We've always had that unknown out there - Havre.
"There are some big economic benefits to this project," Morsette added. "This could be a new beginning for north-central Montana."
He also noted the problems associated with the St. Mary Diversion, the aging canal system that augments the flow of the Milk River. Those repairs will be costly and may take years to complete, and tribes on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Indian reservations are negotiating water compacts for significant portions of the Milk's flow, he said.
Robinson said today the committee has long been interested in getting Havre to join the system for several reasons. The city's larger population would add political clout to the project and would spread the costs of operating, maintaining and upgrading the system over a larger number of users.
"The nontribal component has a limited number of hookups," she said. "If you bring in another 3,000 hookups, you spread the debt over more people. We'd be almost doubling the (nontribal) system."
Several members of the committee agreed that the timeline for Havre to make a decision is growing short.
A $7.5 million federal appropriation has made it through a U.S. House subcommittee and should be going to the floor for a vote within the next week before heading to the Senate, Robinson said. That money will be used for construction of the water intake at Lake Elwell and for preliminary design of the water treatment plant.
After the intake is complete, there's no going back, Robinson said.
"The intake will determine how much water we can draw from the lake," she said.
Rice said he knows time is short but thinks the city and the committee can work together to come to an informed decision.
"I know we're on a short leash, but I think we're on the right track," he said.
He said some people at the city have mixed feelings about the project, but there is a lot to discuss before the City Council votes on whether to join.
"I can honestly tell you that we have some mixed feelings on the council, and I have staff members at public works that are not for this," he said. "If Havre's going to participate, then I have some homework to do. It's going to be an effort. As soon as we get an estimate, then we will go back to the table and I will present the information that I have acquired."