Havre Daily News
SHELBY - Havre city officials learned Tuesday that they have several more months to decide whether to join a large regional water project that will bring water to thousands of residents at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and across north-central Montana from Lake Elwell.
A final agreement that will bind communities to the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System has been rewritten in recent months, and members of the system's water authority, which represents the nontribal communities involved in the project, will travel with project engineers to the various towns and cities in the region to explain the agreement.
“Each system has to look at how they can fit into the jigsaw and how this project could benefit them,” North Central Montana Regional Water Authority chair Dan Keil said.
Keil said the authority will work with the various cities, towns and water districts to come up with a schedule for public meetings. He said he hopes the agreement will be ready for final signatures within two to six months.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice, one of Havre's three members of the authority, said at the meeting he was frustrated with the changing deadline.
“I've been given three drop-dead dates so far,” Rice said. “What's my drop-dead date now?”
Project coordinator Annmarie Robinson said today the agreement was changed to reference a different set of state statutes.
The agreement had to be rewritten after a state bond attorney and several other people, including Havre city attorney Jim Kaze, suggested changes, authority attorney Steve Wade said.
“This agreement is really night and day from the old participation agreement,” Wade said during the meeting.
Robinson said today the authority has been working on the agreement for more than a year and hopes that the next few months represent the home stretch.
Keil said the authority had postponed Tuesday's meeting several times because the agreement had not been ready to present to the communities involved.
Several authority members said communication between the group's five-member executive committee and the rest of the communities needs to be improved. One member said the authority often isn't aware of what its executive committee is doing.
“If you want a commitment from people, you've got to communicate better,” Havre City Council member Gerry Veis said. “I'm going to communicate. It goes both ways.”
Robinson said she will begin sending minutes from the committee's monthly meetings to the rest of the authority's members, who meet quarterly. Those minutes are available online, she added.
The authority also heard about upcoming construction plans and this year's request for funding from Congress, which authorized the project at a cost of $229 million. That cost will be adjusted for inflation, and is now estimated to be about $275 million, said Gary Elwell, one of the project's engineers.
The system received $5.75 million from the federal government this year, Elwell said. The money will be used for the first phase of construction of the intake at Lake Elwell and for the design of the water treatment plant, he said.
The authority and tribe agreed Tuesday to request another $32.3 million from Congress, which will be used to complete construction of the intake and begin building the treatment plant, Elwell said.
The authority's executive committee is set to interview three more engineering firms, which will design infrastructure to bring water to the nontribal communities in the system.
During the meeting, Veis questioned the cost of the system to Havre water users. He said that because of the larger proportionate number of water hookups in Havre, residents here will end up paying about 41 percent of the authority's share of the construction cost.
Robinson said today that Veis' number may be correct, but she could not immediately confirm the number of hookups in the proposed system. She noted that each of the nontribal water users will share equally in the cost.
The federal government is set to pay for the lion's share of the system. If it were only going to serve the residents of Rocky Boy, 100 percent of the cost would be covered by the federal government. For everything beyond the cost of a tribal-only system, the federal government will pay 80 percent of the cost, with the state and local communities splitting the remaining 20 percent. That leaves authority members with a $13.05 million debt to be paid over 20 years.
Each water user in the authority will pay a flat monthly fee to cover the debt. If Havre joins the system, that fee drops from about $16 per hookup to about $11.50 per hookup each month.
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 operating and 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.
The tribe will pay its share of the operating costs by using the interest from 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.
He added that tribal water users pay a flat utility fee each month, which is used to maintain infrastructure.
On the Net: www.northcentralmontanawater.org/