Havre Daily News
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said he was impressed by the information presented at Monday's Havre City Council meeting regarding the city's costs and options for joining the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System.
"I think it looks pretty good," Rice said.
He and council members do have some additional questions that they want answered. For Rice, his major concern is the cost of the water for users who may be on fixed or low incomes. He said he is uncertain of whether it would be cost-effective to continue running the city's water treatment plant if Havre decides to join the regional system.
Rice said his "biggest fear" would be if Havre eventually had to contribute funding to both the water system and the St. Mary's Diversion, an aging canal system that supplies water to Havre via the Milk River.
Whether the city participates in the regional water system will be up to the City Council.
A recent HKM Engineering study outlined the costs of Havre connecting to the system, which will bring water treated at Lake Elwell to at least 18,000 residents on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and in communities across seven counties.
The 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 repay the nontribal communities' loan to pay for their portion of the construction costs. The term of the loan would be 20 years, Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Annmarie Robinson said.
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 communties' share of the operatingand 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 actually pay for the majority of the operating and maintenance costs of the whole 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.
HKM project engineer Gary Elwell said the 69 cents is an estimation of those costs. An additional 10 percent of those costs beyond the operations costs will be charged to users and funneled into reserve accounts to pay for major replacements or rehabilitation of the project down the road.
That fee will be collected until the amount equals the estimated operations costs needed for one year, and then it will be dropped. If the 69-cent figure is accurate, the additional cost would bring the charge to about 76 cents per 1,000 gallons, Elwell said. Elwell stressed that he believes those figures are as accurate as they can be for a project that could still be a decade from completion.
The tribe will pay its share of the operating costs by using the interest off of a trust fund it has set up. The $20 million fund will include $15 million from the federal government, along with $5 million the tribe received in its water compact settlement. The tribe's contribution is already in place, tribal water resources department director Jim Morsette said.
When the tribe, the BIA and the regional water authority were negotiating their agreement, one issue stuck out, Elwell said. The project is set to be constructed in stages. As various communities connect to the system, they will not be asked to pay more in operating costs than they would be paying once the system is completed, he said. That way, no one community will be stuck with large operating payments early on, Elwell said.
"The tribe is agreeing to essentially pay the initial operating and maintenance costs" so small towns don't receive large bills to start off with, he said.
One issue that has come up several times over the past few months at public meetings in Havre is what entity will have control over the water treatment plant.
Robinson said the agreement 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.
Robinson said the tribe could run the treatment plant and the facilities that will pump the water to the reservation. The tribe must have trained personnel, who have to earn the same certifications as the operators of Havre's water treatment plant, and will have to follow federal water quality standards.
"That's just an option for the tribe," Morsette said. "We're working on the training to eventually have our tribal members take over those positions. We won't take over the system until we (have certified operators)."
Havre public works director Dave Peterson said he's heard some good information so far, but still has specific questions he wants answered.
"I think any option could be a good option," he said. "Adding an additional source of water is always a good thing, but what's the cost? It's a numbers game that you have to play."
One of Peterson's main concerns is the quality of the water that would have to be piped 80 miles from the treatment plant to the point at which it enters Havre's system.
"There's a lot of scenarios in there," he said. "What if you find contamination, and you've got 80 miles of pipe to look at?"
Peterson said he thinks the system would have to add additional chemicals into the water as it travels to Havre.
Elwell said the operators of the system will be required to test the water at the treatment plant and at all distribution points on the system to ensure that it meets federal standards. If extra chemicals need to be added along the route, it will be done, he said. If additional chemicals were needed along the route, the necessary facilities would be owned and operated by the water authority or the tribe, depending on their location, he said. More of those types of questions will be answered in future engineering studies, he added.
Peterson said that any municipality that controls its own water supply has a certain comfort zone.
"We want the best we can have when it leaves (our) plant," he said.
Havre water treatment plant supervisor Bob Presnell said city operators add chemicals to raw water as it's brought in from the Milk River and add an extra dose of chlorine before the plant's high-service pumps push it out into the system. Presnell does regular tests at the furthest reaches of Havre's distribution system to ensure the water quality is high, he added.
The Havre plant employs five operators, including Presnell, he said.
Peterson said he's hesitant to consider closing the plant in order to use the water from Lake Elwell for several reasons.
The city took out a loan of $9 million in the late 1990s to upgrade and expand the plant. Peterson estimated that the facility has a value of between $15 million and $20 million.
"My feeling is, any time you mothball something, I don't think you come out ahead," Peterson said. "The decision was not to go with that system (in 1997). The decision was to go with the upgrade with the treatment plant. That was a decision that had to be made," he added, noting that the regional water system has been in the planning stages for more than a decade and could take another 10 years to complete.
Several Havre City Council members have suggested the possibility of piping city-treated water to North Havre or to towns downstream from Havre.
"That certainly could be a possibility," Peterson said of the North Havre option. "We have that possibility now. The plant could certainly be used for that, but you're talking about operating a 6 million-gallon-per-day plant for 250,000 to 500,000 gallons a day for the north side."
Chinook and some of the other towns down the Milk River already have working water treatment plants, Peterson said.
Peterson also questioned why Conrad and Chester backed out of the system.
Chester public works director John Kleinsasser said the town opted out in May because it would be cheaper to continue to run its current system. Chester already draws water from Lake Elwell.
"Everything we did showed that it was cheaper to stay with what we got," he said. "Our city park and football field use a lot of water. For us, it would be pretty costly to buy water at that rate."
Morsette said Havre's inclusion in the system would benefit the whole region.
"I think it would be beneficial for both the city of Havre and the Chippewa Cree Tribe," he said. "I hope we can partner up for this. It's a win-win for all of us, for north-central Montana."