By Larry Kline/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Havre and Hill County residents on Monday night urged the city to look into joining a huge project that will provide water from Lake Elwell to at least 18,000 north-central Montana residents.
The City Council will decide at a later date whether to pay $20,000 - or $6 per city water hookup - to the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System. If the city decides to spend the money, the Regional Water Authority would have an engineering firm study what it would cost to alter the plan to include Havre.
The expenditure would not commit the city to the project. Havre Mayor Bob Rice said that if the council decided to spend the money, more public hearings would likely be held before the decision would be made to join the system or abandon the idea.
City officials, without a vote by the City Council, decided not to join the project in 1997, instead choosing to upgrade the city's water treatment plant. The City Council began reconsidering the issue early last year after residents and members of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns over the future of the city's water supply.
The cost to Havre of joining the system now is not known. An earlier estimate was $34 million, a figure no longer considered accurate.
Bill Thackeray, a senior professor at Montana State University-Northern, spoke in favor of Havre joining the regional water system. He said water from the Milk River has been overappropriated.
"I'm intimately concerned with water resources in Havre," Thackeray said. "We're clearly dealing with uncertainties in the future. The Milk River water system has had a shortage since its beginning. The Marias/Tiber system is a far more reliable source of water."
Robert Kaul also spoke in favor of the city exploring its options.
"As a water user of Havre, I would just as soon see us do this study," he said. "I don't believe it locks us into anything. I believe the study needs to be done to tell us what our options are."
The water system includes the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and 21 other communities spread out across seven counties, said Annmarie Robinson, a Bear Paw Development Corp. official who is coordinating the project. Congress has set the price tag at $229 million, with $26.1 million coming from state and local funds.
Montana has provided a dollar-for-dollar match through the Treasure State Endowment Program, meaning local communities will be responsible for a $13.05 million loan, Robinson said.
Several residents and city officials asked about the possibility of using the water system as a backup to the city's current system. Robinson said such a decision would need to be approved by the water system's coordinating committee, on which the city would have a representative, and that Havre would still be responsible for sharing in the project's cost.
Gary Elwell, a civil engineer with HKM Engineering, said the city would have to decide if it wanted the water system to be a complete backup able to provide all of Havre's water in the case of a drought, or if the system would be used only as a support during peak usage times.
Elwell said that decision would have to be made before his firm could provide any numbers because the projected usage would play a part in determining the size of the pipeline and water treatment plant if they were to serve Havre.
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said he was impressed with the information presented.
"I would really like to see us explore all of the options," Woodwick said. One stumbling block is the question of what to do with the city's water treatment plant. Woodwick said one possible solution would be to keep the plant open and sell treated water to other area communities.
Council member Tom Farnham said the real issue is money. The city spends $680,000 a year in bond payments for the water treatment plant, he said.
"In the long run, we have 18 more years to pay on the water plant," Farnham said. "Where's the money going to come from? I know the need for water is there. It's something we need to look into."