Havre Daily News
The next - not final - step in the Havre City Council's decision on whether the city will join a large regional water system will be put to a vote tonight.
Council members will decide whether to join the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, an organization of the nontribal communities that have tentatively agreed to participate in the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System.
If the council votes tonight to join the water authority, the city has been asked to send three representatives to the authority's annual meeting, set for Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. at the Marias River Electric Cooperative in Shelby, and sign an interlocal agreement.
In a few months, members of the water authority will be asked to consider a participation agreement. Those who sign the agreement will then become members of the water system. That decision will likely occur at the beginning of next year.
The water project 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. It has been authorized by Congress at a cost of $229 million.
In a letter to Havre Mayor Bob Rice, Rocky Boy tribal council vice chair Bruce Sun Child and regional water authority chair Dan Keil explained that the decision to join the authority by signing the interlocal agreement is not the final step in the process.
"We encourage you to execute (the agreement) at your earliest convenience, as systems can only be added to the Authority at the Authority's annual meeting," they wrote. "We hope you understand that by signing the Interlocal Agreement, you are not making a final decision regarding the City of Havre's willingness to have your drinking water needs met by our regional water system."
The agreement to become permanent members of the system will be further discussed Tuesday, they added.
In 1997, the Havre city government opted out of the project and chose instead to upgrade and expand the city's water treatment plant, which treats water from the Milk River. The City Council did not vote on the issue at that time.
Early last year, the City Council began reconsidering the Rocky Boy's/North Central system after members of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce brought the issue up again.
Chamber executive director Debbie Vandeberg said today the organization is satisfied that the issue will come to a vote this time around.
"We're happy the council has looked at it and considered the project," Vandeberg said. "We would hope that the council will give it a serious look, and look to the future for economic development and for having a source of water. The Milk River cannot always be depended on."
Council member Pam Hillery has often spoken in favor of putting the issue to a vote. She said today that she will likely vote for signing the agreement.
"Unless I hear some compelling information against it, I am in favor of us signing the interlocal agreement," said Hillery, who is the Democratic candidate for mayor of Havre. "We have to take this next step. This is really step two in the process."
The water system received $880,000 in federal funding this year to design the raw water intake at Lake Elwell. Once the design is completed, the system cannot take on more members.
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. The funding amount is set to be hashed out in a House-Senate conference committee.
There is no time line for construction of the project, which is dependent on federal funding.
In April, the City Council took the first step by deciding to spend $21,000 to have an engineering firm study the cost of Havre connecting to the system.
An HKM analysis showed that the cost of adding Havre to the system would set the nontribal system's price tag at about $778,000 over the authorized funding level. The project engineer and water authority officials noted that the number was within the margin of error for the study when it is considered against the total project cost of $229 million. It is unknown whether the cost would be lower, higher or nonexistent. Water authority members have suggested that the cost overrun could be spread among the system's users, which would keep Havre from paying all of it.
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 was determined by 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 operation 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.
It is unknown 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 for the plant upgrade forgiven or reduced. The city borrowed $9 million to pay for the upgrade 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.
Some City Council members have suggested that such programs could disappear with future legislative changes.
The city currently treats water from the Milk River. Its flow is augmented by the St. Mary diversion, an aging system on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that takes water from the St. Mary River and adds it to the flow of the Milk. Members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, an advisory panel to the governor, have warned that the diversion's failure could be catastrophic to the entire Milk River Basin.
The group is working to secure federal funding for the diversion's reconstruction, but the time line for the project is unknown.