Havre Daily News
With Havre's final chance coming up in a matter of weeks, the Havre City Council Tuesday will again discuss the possibility of joining the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System, Mayor Bob Rice said.
When constructed, the system will bring drinking water treated at Lake Elwell to about 18,000 water users on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and in communities across north-central Montana.
The full membership of the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, which includes all of the nontribal municipalities, will hold its annual meeting Sept. 20 at the Marias River Electric Co-op. The meeting will be Havre's opportunity to join the system, Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Annmarie Robinson said Monday.
If Havre elects to join the system, a final participation agreement will be prepared and signed by the end of the year, Robinson said.
The regional water project received $880,000 from the federal government this year to design the intake and raw water pump at Lake Elwell. Once the intake is designed, the door for Havre to join the project closes.
There are many factors that play into the city's decision. The City Council must weigh the pros and cons of joining a large water system that draws from the largely unallocated water of Lake Elwell. The system shares operations and maintenance costs over a broad number of users and is guaranteed to be constructed at some point because it is part of the water compact settlement between the federal government and the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
Other factors include an unknown timeline, loss of the city's control over water treatment, and the fact that Havre still owes money for improvements to its water treatment plant, which will not be paid off for almost two decades. Also unknown are whether it would be cost-effective to continue running the city's water plant if Havre joins the new system and whether the city could get its debt forgiven or reduced. The city borrowed $9 million to pay for an upgrade to its water treatment plant and makes annual payments of about $680,000. The loan is scheduled to be paid off in July 2023. The state Legislature has created programs that allow municipalities to have their debt reduced or erased in certain circumstances, but it will not be known if Havre qualifies until it is time to connect to the Rocky Boy's/North Central system.
Another unknown is the St. Mary diversion, the aging canal system badly in need of repair that keeps the Milk River flowing in warm months by diverting water from the St. Mary River. The St. Mary Rehabilitation WorkingGroup, an advisory panel to the governor, is attempting to get Congress to reauthorize the project and provide federal dollars for its repair. Working group executive director Larry Mires has said the timeline for repairs is unknown. In a meeting in Havre last week, working group members said it is likely local governments will have to contribute some money to its repair.
City Council member Tom Farnham said Monday the question of whether to join is a "very tough decision."
"Right when we decide whether to hook in this line, we'll probably be asked to help with the St. Mary diversion," Farnham said. "We've got 18 years left to pay on the water plant. The last price we were quoted (for the Rocky Boy's system) was $778,000, but if Havre's at the end of the line, who knows what the price will be when it gets here.
"If we had desperate needs, the wells in the city and around Havre are enough, if need be," Farnham added.
Rice has said he is "on the fence" over whether the city should continue operating its water treatment plant if it joins the new system.
Farnham doesn't think the city will need to hold a public hearing on the matter before its vote. Any additional comment from the public is welcomed, though, he added.
"It's been publicized the last six months, so most everybody knows about it," Farnham said.
An HKM Engineering study estimated the cost of Havre joining to be about $778,000. That number is an uncertain one because of several factors. The number falls within the margin of error of the study because it is a small percentage of the total authorized cost of the system - $229 million.
Some regional water authority members have said that if the extra cost actually does exist, it could be absorbed by other users in the system.
There are other costs associated with Havre's possible connection - costs to its water users. An estimated monthly charge of $11.50 per customer would pay for the nontribal communities' portion of the construction costs over 20 years.
Water users in nontribal communities would also pay an estimated cost of 69 cents per 1,000 gallons of water. The money would cover the communities' share of the operating and maintenance costs of the system. As set out in an agreement to be signed by the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the regional water authority, the cost reflects a percentage of the total costs estimated in an engineering study prepared for the federal government. The agreement states that the costs will be reviewed annually.
The tribe will pay for the majority of the operating and maintenance costs of the entire system through a trust fund. Per the agreement, 63 percent of those costs will be paid by Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, while 37 percent of the operations and maintenance costs would be covered by the members of the regional water authority, which will manage the nontribal portion of the system.
The system is set up so that the federal government, through the BIA, will initially run the facility. The agreement allows the tribe to take over control of the plant at some point in the future.
If the tribe took over operation of the treatment and pumping facilities, it would have to hire certified personnel and meet federal water quality standards.
The project's organizers have asked Congress for money to begin construction of the intake at Lake Elwell this spring. The House gave the system $7.5 million, while the Senate left the project unfunded. Once Congress is back in session, the funding amount will be hashed out in a Senate-House conference committee.