By Alan Sorensen
Organizers expressed optimism Thursday night in Hingham that the $200 million regional drinking-water project they envision will get congressional approval.
Jack Stults, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said that the system could be delivering quality drinking water to arid communities throughout north central Montana by the year 2010.
The regional system was suggested by Conrad-area farmer Dan Keil after it became apparent about six years ago that the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boys Reservation was going to try to acquire drinking water from Lake Elwell. The Tribe hopes for an allocation of up to 20,000 acre feet per year from the lake that reportedly has about 150,000 acre feet of unallocated water to spare.
Gary Elwell of MSE-HKM Engineering of Billings said the Tribes actual anticipated annual water use to begin with would be 2,400 acre feet. He estimated that the water treated for nontribal use would be about 5,300 acre feet.
The system would link 20 existing rural and municipal water districts by pipeline to a water treatment plant located near Tiber Dam at Lake Elwell. A Regional Water Authority with representation from each of the participating districts would oversee the wholesale distribution of the water.
Water rates would increase, Keil said, but not nearly as much as if everyone of the small districts had to construct its own water treatment plant to comply with federal standards. The districts will continue to exist separately, too.
Were not here to kill small systems, Annmarie Robinson of Bear Paw Development Corp. said.
Districts will still have their own day-to-day operations, Elwell said.
Communities with inadequate storage will probably have to build their own storage facilities, Stults said.
Robinson said that federal water quality regulations are constantly expanding to include more and more contaminants. The list has gone from five in the early days to 83 today.
Chester Mayor Wayne Wardell was concerned that his town would have to relinquish the 500 acre feet of reserved water rights to Lake Elwell that it already holds. Keil said other districts had expressed the same concern and that that question is something that each district will have to take up with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Keil and others said the regional system would provide districts with the most affordable means of complying with federal clean drinking water regulations. An official with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality told the audience that his department is prepared to do what it can to help districts participate in the project. That includes suspending those districts clean water compliance deadlines.
The DEQ doesnt want the districts to forget about compliance, he said, but it will try to refrain from levying noncompliance penalties until the question of the regional water system is answered.
Hill County Water District includes most of the smaller towns along U.S. Highway 2 from Havre to the Liberty County line. It is operating under a state administrative order that has waived the districts compliance for now.
Hill County Water District, ranked third among interested districts in the number of households served behind Shelby and Conrad, is joined in the Havre area by the North Havre County Water District. The North Havre district stretches across farmland north of Havre to Blaine County and the Canadian border.
Each of the 50 or so people attending the meeting was given a copy of an 11-page bill the Rocky Boys/North Central Montana Regional Water System committee hopes to send to Congress soon. The bill proposes that the federal government fund 100 percent of the Tribes part in the facility and pipeline, $120 million.
The bill also asks the federal government to pay 50 percent of the remaining cost, $40 million.
The state has already given its approval to a plan to award matching funds to communities and districts involved in the project. Local and state shares would be identical at about $20 million each. The local shares would be paid per user.
Robinson told those in attendance Thursday that there are several grant and loan programs available to help them come up with their share.