Havre Daily News
Members of the Havre City Council are more open to the possibility of the city joining the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System after hearing the results of an engineering analysis at Monday's council meeting.
Many council members still have questions they would like answered, but the consensus of the group is that the city and the public need to seriously study the issue before making a decision.
Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Annmarie Robinson said the likely cut-off date for that decision is mid-September.
"It's not an easy decision," council member Jack Brandon said. "If it was, we would've made it a long time ago. I think we need some more specific answers."
The decision is particularly difficult, he said, because it involves so much of the future and little of the present.
"No one has a crystal ball," Brandon said.
He added that there are several questions he needs answered before he can give the proposal a thumbs-up.
"We're relying on the efficiency of the whole system," Brandon said. "We're at the end of the line. What happens if it goes down?"
He said he has faith that the St. Mary Diversion will continue to augment the Milk River's flow and provide Havre with water.
"We've gone over 80 years with the St. Mary Diversion, and we have never actually run out of water," Brandon said. "Probably, we would not in the future. That's going to be funded. The system will be repaired and will be upgraded." He said one of his main concerns is the cost of water to Havre residents who may struggle to afford it. A senior citizen, Brandon lives on a fixed income.
"I'm concerned about people paying more when they're low-income," he said. "If we can buy into this North Central water district, and it's affordable to the average user, I say we go with it."
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said he still has some questions about the system, but is positive about the possibility of Havre joining.
"I'm leaning toward this regional water system, if it's economically feasible," he said.
Woodwick said he would like to see cost comparisons that show city water users' current bills side-by-side with projections for water bills if Havre were to go solely with the regional system. He said he wants to explore options regarding the city's water plant.
He said it might be possible to convince BNSF Railway to assist the city in building the infrastructure needed to pipe water from Havre's treatment plant to North Havre. Other communities, like Chinook, may be interested in the city's treated water, he added.
Proposed repairs to the St. Mary Diversion, the aging canal system that supplies the city with a large percentage of its water via the Milk River, add a difficult twist to the discussion, Woodwick said.
"That's a tough one," he said. "My biggest concern, even with the St. Mary repaired - I don't know if the Milk River is going to be a completely reliable source of water. The Blackfeet claims, the drought situation, the Canadians. Our friends at Fort Belknap have claims. There are a lot of factors in there that could adversely affect our water supply.
Council member Pam Hillery is all but ready to vote for Havre to join the system.
"I feel very positive about us pursuing this project," she said. "If I was pushed to vote on this tomorrow, I would vote for us to join, unless there was some radical new information."
Hillery added that city officials need to have "a very clear understanding" of what responsibilities each group participating in the system will have.
She is willing to consider utilizing both Havre's current water treatment system and using the regional project as a full backup to that system.
"What we need to do here is decide if we want to have this source of water," Hillery said. "And, in doing so, recognize that we may not be looking at cost savings. Water is a critical resource. Water is only going to get more expensive. If we had to pay for both systems (including the cost of repairs to the St. Mary Diversion), I would still support it."
Council member Dana West said the information presented by the project's organizers was encouraging.
"It's something we really have to take a good look at," West said. "It's an opportunity to get on board with that system."
West was chair of the City Council's Water and Sewer Committee when Havre decided to take out about $9 million in loans to upgrade and expand the city's water treatment plant. Deciding whether to close it would be a difficult decision, she said.
"It's hard for me to even think of shutting that down," West said. "The hard thing is the loss of jobs. That has a huge impact in town down the road."
West added that the decision to join will be a far-reaching one.
"Twenty years from now, are they going to say the City Council was shortsighted?" West said. "In my experience, your infrastructure is always needing upgrades, and they're very costly. We have the opportunity to get some real cheap water down the road."
Council member Terry Schend said he is leaning toward going with the system, but like other council members, he has a few more questions to ask before he casts his vote.
"It looks like a favorable thing," Schend said. "I feel there's going to be a lot more questions asked and more answers."
He said the idea of going with the new system as a sole source of Havre's water looks like a good possibility.
"I believe that to pay the cost of two systems does not really wash out," Schend said. "I either want one or the other. If it's going to be more cost-effective, then I'm going to want the new system. I'd rather have the lesser of the two amounts."
Schend is also willing to look at the possibility of keeping the city's water treatment plant open for other uses.
"I don't see a reason why we couldn't pipe that water down the valley," he said.
He also said the St. Mary Diversion is "an unknown at this point."
"It'd almost be in our best interest to look at the guaranteed product rather than the hypothetical," Schend said. "All in all, I'd have to be in favor of it at this point."
Emily Mayer Lossing is pleased that the city will retain the option of using its own water plant if it decides to join the system.
Mayer Lossing said she does not want to see Havre give up any of its water options.
"We all know that water is essential," she said. "We've had problems historically with water. Coming out of (Monday's City Council) meeting, I felt a lot more confident to go ahead with the project."
Tom Farnham had voiced concerns about the system during previous interviews, but said he is more willing to consider the system because of the recent cost estimate for joining the system.
"I feel a lot more positive now, considering that we're looking at $778,000," he said. "If possible, I'd like to see us utilize both. It'd be nice to see us have a nice water resource, in case we increase the size of the city."
Farnham said he is still concerned about residents' water bills.
"Even though I'd like to see Havre receive an adequate amount of water for its future needs, at the same time I'd like to look at the bottom line for the regular customer."
Council president Rick Pierson said he's still undecided on the issue and wants more answers.
"There has got to be some scientific questions asked," he said.