Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
A group working to rehabilitate the system that provides much of the water in the Milk River each year is looking to expand its focus and create a regional authority that can help with the region's water resources for decades to come. “This is not only looking at the St. Mary working group today, it is looking 100 years into the future,” Larry Mires, executive director of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, said at the group’s meeting in Havre Tuesday. Pending further research, it was agreed that a likely name is the Milk River Regional Resource Authority. The working group, co-chaired by Blaine County farmer Randy Reed and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, was formed to find ways to rebuild the St. Mary Diversion, which transports water from the St. Mary River through 29 miles of dikes, canals and gigantic siphons and deposits it into the Milk River. The diversion, completed in 1916, was authorized as part of the Milk River irrigation project, and all repairs and maintenance to the system are charged to the users, primarily irrigators, each year the work is done. Today, the Milk River is used for irrigation in four counties and also for recreation as well as supplying municipal water for Havre, Chinook, Harlem and the Fort Belknap Agency. The last of the original sole-purpose irrigation districts Mires said in an interview that the diversion, one of the first five projects authorized in 1902 for the newly formed Bureau of Reclamation to build and operate, is the last of those five projects still running as a single-use irrigation Project with the costs charged directly to its users. In 2007, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., pushed through Congress $153 million in authorization to rebuild the aging structure, although little of that actually has been allocated to the project as yet. In this year’s session of the state Legislature, Sen. Ken “Kim” Hansen, D-Harlem, sponsored legislation allowing for the creation of regional resource authorities, which can issue bonds to fund water projects. After some negotiations on some sticky issues, the legislation passed 96-4 in the House and 50-0 in the Senate. The working group is pushing for the creation of an authority under the provisions of that bill which could issue bonds to help pay for the required non-federal share of the cost of rebuilding the diversion, which Mires said comes to $38 million. That would spread the cost of the local share among the people within the authority and over a 40-year repayment period. Mires said the Montana government has authorized $10 million in bonding authority for the project, which would reduce the authority’s share to $28 million if it can be created and issue the bonds before other projects use up the amount of bonding authority available to the state. Funding moving through Congress Mires said some funding for the project, to conduct an environmental impact statement on rebuilding the diversion, has been approved by subcommittees and committees in both the U.S. House and the Senate. President Barack Obama’s budget requested $2.5 million to conduct a evironmental impact study on a diversion dike on the system, Mires said. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was able to increase that to $3 million in a bill moving to the floor of the House, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was able to increase that to $4 million in the Senate. Mires said both Rehberg and Tester are working on inserting language into the bills that will allow the study to be done on the entire diversion. Even if the differences in the bills are not reconciled and passed before Congress adjourns and a continuing resolution for funding is necessary, Mires said, that will be based on the House version and the group will have $3 million to work with for the EIS. Mires said the EIS is crucial, because it will not only let work on the rehabilitation begin, it will bring the design of the St. Mary Diversion to modern standards. Repair to the diversion now is based on its original 1906 design, he said. Moving forward The group Tuesday set priorities in its actions, working with Dan Clark, director of Montana State University’s Local Government Center, who has been presenting information to the group about setting up an authority. The priorities set were to define what the boundaries of the proposed authority would be, create a mission statement for the regional resource authority, find a name for the authority, and research hiring someone to coordinate the group’s actions and supervise presenting information to the region. The group also agreed that creating task forces or subcommittees to work on the specific projects is a priority. To create the authority, the group will have to gather signatures of at least 10 percent of the voters to get the issue on a ballot in an election. Once on the ballot, if more than 50 percent of the voters approve the issue, the authority would be created. The group Tuesday decided it would shoot for getting the creation of the authority on the primary election next June, although the timeframe would be troublesome. The work would have to be done 75 days before the election to allow for governments in the area to conduct public meetings, Mires said. That led to a goal of completing the drive by February. Bear Paw Development Executive Director Paul Tuss, a member of the working group, said that will leave little time to complete the necessary tasks. “February will be here in the blink of an eye,” he said. Setting a boundary Extensive discussion was held by the group about how to set the boundaries of the authority. Clark worked with some of the group members when they split into breakout groups in deciding what the priorities in creating a boundary would be. When the entire group reconvened, he said the focus had been on creating a philosophy, rather than drawing boundaries. Clark said presenting a philosophy will make it much easier to explain to people why the group wants the boundaries it does. “It will say, This is what we believe, and this (boundary) is a reflection of our belief system,’” he said. The items initially identified included that the authority would be created to help the regional community; that it allows dealing with all water issues in the Milk River Basin; that it is an effort to conserve water; that it is of mutual benefit to all residents in the region; that it is a grassroots effort to solve resource problems; and that it will value the protection of water rights. Rep. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, a member of the working group that helped Hansen write and push through the regional resource authority bill, suggested that the boundaries of the authority be set as the entire counties in which the Milk River flows. The legislation requires that the boundaries be set as closely as possible to existing political subdivisions, he said, and added that drawing boundary lines that would divide counties would make it very difficult for county clerk and recorder offices to determine which voters are eligible to vote in the elections. Other members took different views. Valley County irrigator Steven Page, at least at first, said it would be difficult to persuade people not using Milk River water directly to create a new district with the authority to tax them. Page initially suggested using the boundaries of the eight irrigation districts as the basis for the authority. Later, after discussions of the benefits of the authority including potentially freeing up or creating more water to use, and possibly increasing the area in which farmers irrigate using the Milk River, Page reconsidered and said including the entire counties might work. The group agreed that researching and creating a potential boundary is one of the top priorities and that that would have to be a focus of a coordinator if one is hired. Defining a mission Clark said a top priority has to be defining exactly what the authority will do and why it should be created. That will create a unified message the working group can present to residents of the proposed authority while trying to gather petition signatures and garner support in an election, he said. When the working group split into smaller groups, one group worked on writing that mission statement. When the working group reconvened, Dustin DeYong, assistant to Bohlinger, read the tentative statement of need he compiled from the discussion. That statement says the purpose of the authority will be the conservation, development and utilization of water to benefit all in the region. The authority would act as the governing body to provide water management and revenue generation to maintain the system, to “continue to provide economic opportunity and will maintain the quality of life that residents within the Basin have enjoyed for nearly 100 years.” Hiring a coordinator The group authorized Mires to research hiring a community coordinator to work full-time on the issues with the task forces and the full working group. Mires said it is possible state funds are available to help pay a coordinator and that he would research what is available and write a job description and request-for-proposal to see who would be available to fill such a position. The group set its next meeting for Aug. 25 in Chinook.