Havre Daily News
The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations committee has approved $5.5 million in funding this year for the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System, and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said Monday the funding should go to the House floor for a vote within the next two weeks.
The Chippewa Cree Tribe and the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, which represents nontribal interests in the system, together requested about $32.3 million for the system this year.
Tribal and authority officials on Monday said they understand the budgetary climate on Capitol Hill and hope they can garner more federal cash as the funding request moves from the House to the U.S. Senate. The money will be used to finish construction of the water intake at Lake Elwell and design of the water treatment plant, and possibly begin the plant's construction, authority chair Dan Keil said Monday.
Members of the authority and project engineers will be in Havre tonight to present new cost figures for the system. The numbers, based on a new formula, will differ for each of the towns and water districts across north-central Montana that are considering joining the proposed system, which will bring water treated at Lake Elwell to thousands of residents across the region.
The meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m. in the Havre City Council chambers.
Rehberg said the allocation represents an attempt to “stay ahead of the bills” and called the amount “reasonable.” He said federal lawmakers have to set priorities, given the federal government's responsibilities in Iraq and on a Gulf Coast still recovering from last year's hurricanes.
“Knowing that we're in tight fiscal times, we do the best we can matching up what the committee anticipates can be spent in a fiscal year,” he said.
“We'll do the best we can,” added Rehberg, who sits on the Committee on Appropriations. “It's not always easy to get as much as we want.”
Rehberg said his office is talking with the staff of U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who sits on the Senate's Committee on Appropriations, in the hopes that Burns can come up with additional funding for the project.
Tribal officials said they recognize the constraints on the federal budget but said they will continue to push for more funding for the system. Congress approved the project with a price tag of $229 million. Inflation and the rising costs of materials have driven the projected price tag to about $275 million.
“We're appreciative of (Rehberg's) efforts,” Chippewa Cree tribal attorney Dan Belcourt said Monday. “We're not going to say we're unhappy. We need more, but understanding what the budget climate is up there, we understand what happens. That doesn't mean we're not going to push for more.
“We know we have the backing of (Montana's congressional delegation),” he added. “We'll make it happen.”
Keil had a wait-and-see attitude. He said the $5.5 million “is just barely enough to maintain the status quo,” and noted that the amount falls short of the yearly average needed to maintain a 10-year construction cycle.
“We're still not through the cycle for the year,” he said. “We'll see how it makes it through the Senate.
“We appreciate the work that Congressman Rehberg has done so far,” Keil added. “Money's tight, but we're told that every year. We'll just have to see how it goes.”
Keil said attendance at the authority's public meetings last week in Conrad and Cut Bank has been less than hoped for. The authority also met in Shelby on Monday to discuss the new costs for water users there.
An official with Kadrmas, Lee & Jackson, the engineering firm working for the authority, has said the new formula, which uses peak daily water demand numbers - plus projections for population growth - to determine costs for each of the towns and water districts that are considering joining the system, was developed for the sake of fairness.
The old formula for determining costs to users was based on the number of users in each system, but some systems differed in their definition of “user.” In some cases, a water user could be defined as a number of households all linked to one water hookup.
Users in some systems will pay more or less than others, Keil said. He declined to divulge the new cost estimates for Havre users.
He, along with Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. CEO Tony Belcourt and Havre City Council member Gerry Veis, one of three city representatives on the authority, said it is important for the public to be represented at tonight's meeting.
“I think it's very important for individuals that are concerned about how our water supply future,” Veis said.
Tony Belcourt, who will attend tonight's meeting, said he would like to see as many people as possible join the system.
“In the long term, it's going to be a big boost” for communities across north-central Montana, he added.