Havre Daily News
The Havre City Council has until mid-September to make a far-reaching decision regarding the city's water supply.
City officials and several members of the City Council met with the parties involved in the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System on Monday afternoon to discuss the project. The project's engineer, along with representatives of the Chippewa Cree Tribe and the regional water authority, presented information to the public at a City Council meeting Monday night.
Among the issues to be considered:
the cost of the system to Havre and its residents;
how much water the system would bring to Havre, if the city decides to join;
the timeline for the project's completion;
when and how the St. Mary Diversion will be rehabilitated and whether the city will have to help pay. The diversion keeps a year-round flow in the Milk River, Havre's current source of water.
As part of the Rocky Boy water compact, signed by President Clinton in 1999, Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation has been given 10,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Elwell. The compact negotiations ran in conjunction with the design of the water system, which would bring water treated near Tiber Dam to at least 18,000 customers on the reservation and in about 20 communities across north-central Montana. In 2002, Congress authorized the project, with a price tag of $229 million.
In 1997, the City Council voted to expand and upgrade the city's water treatment plant. The city opted not to join the regional water system, without a vote by the City Council. Early last year, members of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce brought the issue back to the table over concerns about the future of the city's water supply.
The regional water project received $880,000 from the federal government this year to design the intake and raw water pump at Lake Elwell. At least 30 percent of the design must be completed by the second week of September, Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director and project coordinator Annmarie Robinson said today.
Once the intake is designed, the door for Havre to join the project closes.
"It's entirely in your hands at this point," Havre Mayor Bob Rice told council members at the close of Monday's City Council meeting. If council members decide to pursue the matter, public hearings will be held.
Here's a closer look at the issues:
A study recently prepared by HKM Engineering set the cost of adding Havre to the system at $38.4 million. However, an engineering study completed in 2003 identified between $30 million and $40 million in cost savings in the project, HKM engineer Gary Elwell said. Also, Chester and Conrad have opted out of the project, cutting the overall cost by another $28.7 million.
That means bringing Havre into the system would put the nontribal portion of the system $778,000 over budget, according to a recent analysis by HKM. The validity of that number is unknown, Elwell said, because it is smaller than the range of error of the analysis.
Authority chairman Dan Keil said he's not concerned about the estimate.
"We're ignoring it at this point," he said after the meeting Monday afternoon. "A lot of it will depend on what Havre requests for water."
Perhaps the other communities would be willing to share in those costs with Havre if the system is over budget, Elwell said during the City Council meeting. "Adding Havre into the system would be beneficial to those communities," he said.
The majority of the project will be funded by the federal government. The state and participating local governments are responsible for $26.1 million. The state will pay its half with Treasure State Endowment Program regional water funds. The repayment of loans needed to cover the local contribution, without Havre in the system, would cost about $16 per water hookup per month. If Havre were to join, that number would drop to $11.50 per hookup per month, Robinson said.
The cost of water delivered by the system would be 69 cents per 1,000 gallons.
If the city elected to join the system and continued to use its current water system as well, the average water and sewer bill - $50.54 - would increase by at least $11.50. Residential water users pay a rate of $2.15 per 1,000 gallons, along with a base rate that ranges from $12.19, which includes the first 1,000 gallons used, to $18.64, which includes 4,000 gallons, according to city officials.
The city has a number of options to choose from regarding how much water it would get from Lake Elwell. The city could continue using its current water treatment plant and use the regional system to supplement its supply or serve as a backup. Havre could decide to size the pipe delivering water to the city large enough to supply all of its water, but only use it to supply a quarter or half of what the city needs. The city also could decide to size the pipe so it would only supply a portion of its needs. Once the design of the treatment plant is set, no participating community can change the amount of water it has the ability to receive.
Robinson said the cost savings of the project disappear if the city decides to join and continue using its own treatment plant.
The city took out about $9 million in loans 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.
Robinson said there are some available avenues through the state to have part or all of that debt forgiven, but there is no way to tell if Havre would be eligible for those programs until it is closer to actually connecting to the regional system.
"It's best not to assume that's going to happen," she said today. "If it happens, that's a bonus."
Robinson said the city cannot be asked to pay any of the costs associated with the project until water is actually delivered.
Elwell said there is more water available in Lake Elwell than Havre could ever need. The latest estimate was at more than 1 million acre feet, he said. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation still has unresolved water rights issues at the reservoir, but there is enough water to go around.
"There's still a huge quantity of available water there," Elwell said. "There just should not be a situation where this project will run out of water."
There is no set timeline for the project's completion, and construction of the intake, treatment plant, core pipeline to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and noncore pipelines to other participating communities is dependent upon the whims of Congress.
Elwell said that, for lack of a better number, the system's coordinators chose 10 years as a schedule for construction when the final engineering report was submitted to Congress.
Havre currently gets all of its water from the Milk River. The river's flow is augmented by the St. Mary Diversion, an aging system of canals and siphons on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The movement to repair the system is in its early stages, St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group interim executive director Larry Mires said this morning.
Working Group co-chair Randy Reed, a Blaine County farmer, offered testimony on the project before a U.S. House subcommittee this morning. His comments were regarding aging infrastructure, not rural water systems, Mires said. Still, the group hopes to make the diversion a case study for the problems facing such systems throughout the western United States, he said.
"The working group, along with the state, is working very hard to elevate it to a high level of recognition by the Bureau of Reclamation," Mires said. "Our hope is that Congress will use us as a poster child."
Mires said he hopes the added recognition moves the rehabilitation along more quickly, but there is no solid answer for when funding will be available.
"I'm banking on 10 years," he said this morning. "We're in this for the long haul."
The working group requested $6.75 million from Congress this year.
Mires said he has no way of knowing whether local communities will have to contribute to the cost of the reconstruction. Everything depends on whether Congress reauthorizes the project and how that document is written. As it stands now, irrigators along the Milk River are responsible for all repair and replacement costs.
"We are just now beginning to open that door," Mires said. "We're in the very infantile stages of that process."
Organizers of the regional water project have requested $7.5 million from Congress to begin construction on the intake and raw water transmission line this spring, Elwell said.
The system is designed to provide all of the necessary water for the participating communities for 50 years, Elwell said. In his study, Elwell assumed that Havre's population would grow by 20 percent over that period.
In considering the system, "We all looked way beyond our own lifetimes," Chippewa Cree water resources department director Jim Morsette said.
If it elected to join the system, Havre would have three representatives on the regional water authority. The authority elects a five-member executive committee, which coordinates the project along with five members of the tribe and Robinson.
Havre has a short timeline to make its decision, but it must be an educated one, Keil said. He and other organizers said they would be available to offer any information the city needs.
"It's something the communities need to look at to participate in on the basis that it's a long-range decision," Keil said.