Havre Daily News
The Havre City Council Monday took the city a step closer to connecting to the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System by voting to join the system's regional water authority.
Representatives from across the region will gather in Shelby today for the annual meeting of the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, where new members are added.
By joining the water authority, Havre is one step closer to a final decision on whether to join the regional system.
A tribal official who attended the Monday meeting asked city officials why the decision had been delayed for so long.
In the coming months, tribal and water authority officials will work out a participation agreement. Authority officials said the deadline for communities to sign on the dotted line to connect to the system could be as early as January or as late as March.
The water authority is composed of the nontribal communities involved in the proposed water system, which has been authorized by Congress at a cost of $229 million. The system will bring water treated at Lake Elwell to at least 18,000 water users on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and throughout the region.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice was asked by the City Council to name three representatives from the city to attend today's meeting and continue to study the possibility of joining the system.
Council member Pam Hillery, who is the Democratic candidate for mayor, suggested Rice name himself, public works director Dave Peterson and a council member.
Rice said after the meeting that he had not yet decided who to select.
An engineering study determined that if Havre connected, the system would cost $778,000 more than the authorized amount. The reliability of that figure is unknown because it was within the margin of error of the study.
If Havre joined, water users would pay $11.50 a month base rate and 69 cents per 1,000 gallons for water. Some City Council members and residents - about two dozen attended the meeting - had questions for the project's representatives, and many spoke in favor of considering the project as a source of water for the future.
Council member Dana West said she has a lot of friends and relatives in eastern Montana in an area that will be served by a large regional water system drawing from Fort Peck Lake.
"Those people have told me, 'This is an opportunity for you. Make sure you don't give it up,'" West said.
Opponents have advocated staying with water from the Milk River, which comes via the St. Mary diversion. That project also needs substantial federal funding for repairs.
West said the St. Mary diversion rehabilitation efforts share the same "political vulnerability" as the Rocky Boy's/North Central system because of other concerns - such as the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina relief - at the federal level.
The Rocky Boy's/North Central system received $880,000 in federal funding this year, and its organizers hope to get an additional $7.5 million in the coming fiscal year. The time line for both projects is unknown.
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said the regional system would provide adequate water for future Havre growth.
"I think we really need to look toward the future," Woodwick said. "I really think we should keep our options open."
A study prepared by Billings-based HKM Engineering planned for 20 percent growth in Havre in determining the size of the pipe needed to bring water to the city.
Council member Emily Mayer Lossing said she was "most happy" that the project's organizers had left the door open on the city's options.
Officials had first come to the City Council with the requirement that if it joined the system it would have to quit utilizing the city water treatment plant. In May, the officials decided to allow the city to consider using the plant after it connected to the regional system.
They cautioned that the system's cost savings for city water users would disappear if the city were to pay to operate and maintain both systems.
"It was not agreeable to give up the Milk River," Mayer Lossing said. "I will only vote for this if we are able to keep all of our options. Our water is extremely important and very valuable."
Rocky Boy water resources director Jim Morsette encouraged the City Council members to consider the big picture in making their decision.
"Politicians come and go, ... but this is in the best interest of the communities," Morsette said.
Council member Terry Schend asked whether the city was being pressured into joining the regional system by state officials, who suggested the ailing Hill County Water District, which is currently under a boil order, could connect to the city's water system.
In a meeting two weeks ago, state Department of Environmental Quality officials suggested that the water district consider a connection to Havre at some point as an interim solution to its treatment problems.
The officials said the connection would only be feasible if Havre joined the regional system. If the city decides to join, a pipe connecting Havre and the water district's pump station in Kremlin would be constructed as part of the Rocky Boy's/North Central system.
DEQ officials suggested that the pipe could be built early in the construction process as a temporary fix for Hill County, which has been under administrative order since 1994 because it distributes unfiltered surface water.
Water district board member and Rocky Boy's/North Central coordinating committee member Dean Hanson said the city was not being pressured into joining the system.
"You're not under an obligation, as far as I know," he told Schend.
Rocky Boy tribal council vice chair Bruce Sun Child said the tribe and the water authority had offered the city "assurances after assurances," and questioned why the decision had been delayed so long.
"We've been waiting a long time to see what the holdup from Havre, Montana is," Sun Child said. "Is it the mistrust of the Chippewa Cree tribe, because we cannot handle it?"
"I don't think it's a matter of trust, mistrust or anything like that, for those of us up here," Rice said, referring to City Council members and officials.
The issue had never been brought up to him by anyone in city government, he added.
One resident spoke out against the regional water project. Jeff Jensen, who was in charge of the water treatment plant when it was upgraded in the late 1990s, said differences in pressures between the water system and the city's distribution system will cause problems down the road.
He said the city may have to re-engineer its distribution system.
Jensen added that the city's water treatment plant is "state of the art," and it is designed to be upgraded and expanded as needed.
"Keep our water treatment plant," Jensen said. "Don't go with the regional system."