By Tim Leeds
A single system to provide water to a large section of north-central Montana including many people who don't have drinkable water now will be up for discussion in Congress soon.
Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said a bill to fund the Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water Supply System has been in Congress since last March. But change in Senate leadership delayed the bill last summer, and then the terrorist attacks and anthrax contamination in the Hart Senate Office Building delayed it more.
"Hopefully we're past all the rough parts," said Robinson, who is also administrator of the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority. "We're hoping to go ahead and get a hearing scheduled."
Robinson said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's staff has told her a hearing in the House will be scheduled for late March or early April.
The bill was originally assigned to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and the water authority is asking that it be reassigned to the Energy Committee, which normally handles projects similar to the Montana project, Robinson said.
The project will take an estimated 10 years to complete once construction begins.
The planned system grew out of a plan to provide quality drinking water to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. The water will come from Lake Elwell under a settlement of water right claims negotiated by the Chippewa Cree Tribe and ratified by the Montana Legislature in 1997. President Clinton signed the settlement in 1999.
The settlement provides an annual 10,000 acre-feet water allocation from the lake at Tiber Dam south of Chester. A water treatment plant has to be built at the dam, and a transmission pipe built to ship the water to Rocky Boy.
In addition to the reservation, numerous communities have signed on to the project, and formed the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority to administer their portion of the project.
The territory it covers runs from the Sweet Grass Hills to Dutton and from Loma to the area north of Havre. Entities included in the authority are Big Sandy, Chester, Conrad, Dutton, the Galata County Water District, the Hill County Water District, the Loma County Water & Sewer District, the North Havre County Water District, Oilmont County Water District, Sage Creek County Water District, city of Shelby, the town of Sunburst, the Sweetgrass Community Water and Sewer District, and the Tiber County Water District.
The system will serve about 7,000 households with about 19,000 people.
Jim Morsette at the Rocky Boy water department said the project will provide a double benefit to Rocky Boy and the rest of the participating communities a long-term source of drinkable water and an economic boon while the construction is done.
Most of Rocky Boy's residents use wells as their water source, Morsette said, and the poor quality of water and lack of groundwater has created a double problem with that system.
As the drought has reduced the groundwater available, many wells have dried up, requiring new well-drilling. But many of those new wells, as well as many existing wells, can't be used for drinking water, and the owners have to haul water, he said.
"Personally, my well has too much lead," he said. "We can't drink it, (so we) use it for washing. A lot of the new wells we can't use."
He said another benefit of the system is to provide water for the proposed industrial park on the reservation between Box Elder and Laredo.
"We need good water to attract some businesses," he said. "If we run that line there, we'll hopefully have a community there growing in population."
Robinson noted, as Morsette did, that the construction will also help the region.
"There will be huge economic benefits for 10 years of construction" on a $200 million project, she said.
The long-term economic effects are unknown, she said. Some jobs will be created to maintain the new treatment plant at Tiber Dam, but some might be lost at the existing water distribution systems because they won't have to treat water anymore. However, employees will still be needed to test and maintain each system fed by the project, so the net number of jobs could stay about the same or be a little higher.
Havre city officials decided not to join, which took communities east of Havre out of the project. Robinson said other communities, like Chinook, originally had signed on. Without Havre serving as a juncture for the pipeline, those communities had to be excluded.
Havre public works director Dave Peterson was assistant director of public works at the time Havre decided not to join.
"We looked at it quite hard," he said. "(Public works director Ron Bastin) and the (city) council at the time felt it was better off staying with the system we have."
Peterson said one factor was the cost, both of having to pay off some of the debt for constructing the system and the monthly charge for water. Havre's existing water treatment plant, which is undergoing renovation and expansion, provides water at a lower charge than the regional water system would have, he said. Havre gets its water from the Milk River.
Peterson said the monthly charge for water in the regional system would have been about $50 a month per customer, which is about the average for Havre's combined water and sewer charge now.
Another factor was the time involved. Peterson said the Havre officials decided it was better to stay with the existing system and upgrade it for faster, better treatment and a larger processing capability than to wait for the regional system to go into operation.
The upgrades of the Havre water plant are estimated to cost about $8 million, much of it from state and federal grants. The total cost to create the regional water system is estimated to cost $200 million, but the cost to the consumers is only a fraction of that.
The proposed funding for the system includes the federal government, which will pay the Chippewa Cree Tribe's entire $120 million share of the project. Federal grants will pay $60 million of the nontribal cost, and $10 million will come from a state of Montana grant.
The final cost of construction to consumers off the reservation will be $10 million, paid for by a loan from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's revolving loan fund. The regional water authority will charge each household an estimated $12.92 per month until the loan is repaid.
The total cost to customers, depending on the amount of water they use, their location and the rate they will continue to pay their existing water distribution system, is estimated at $35 to $119 a month.
Some of the communities in the water authority have been required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update their systems to meet water quality requirements. Sharing the expense of one modern central water treatment plant and any future upgrades to it as water quality regulations change will reduce the amount each member of the authority would have had to spend to upgrade their own system, Robinson said.
She said some of the systems probably could not have met EPA requirements on their own. The smallest member of the authority has only 24 customers, and couldn't have afforded to hire five full-time workers to staff its own plant, she said.
Dan Bushnell of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said he thinks Congress is likely to approve funding to get the project started but is unlikely to fund the entire federal share in the first year.
Many rural states, such as North and South Dakota, have implemented regional systems like the proposed Rocky Boy North Central system, Bushnell said. Several areas of Montana are now using or are creating such systems.
One benefit the system would provide is ensuring water in drought years to people who rely on the Milk River. The Hill County Water District and Chinook both had to implement water restrictions last year because of the low level of the Milk River and Fresno Reservoir. Bushnell said that might help influence Congress to approve the bill.
"We'll just have to see if that adds any weight," Bushnell said. "Even without the drought there are problems. The regional water (system) seems to be the simplest and best way to solve those problems."