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Panel approves water project


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A proposal to bring better water to some 30,000 north-central Montana residents has cleared one hurdle.

The House Committee on Resources on Thursday unanimously passed legislation introduced by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. The legislation, which authorizes creating the Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water Supply System, will now go to the full House for debate.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., has introduced identical legislation in the Senate. Annmarie Robinson of Bear Paw Development Corp., who has been coordinating efforts to create the water system, said hearings have been held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

"So we're just waiting for it to be passed on," she said.

The proposal for the water system grew out of a plan to provide quality drinking water to residents of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Communities in north-central Montana created the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority to include people off the reservation in the system.

The plan would provide water to about 7,000 households with about 19,000 people.

A water treatment plant at Tiber Dam would treat 10,000 acre-feet of water a year. The area served would stretch from the Sweet Grass Hills to Dutton and from Loma to the area north of Havre. Entities included in the authority are Rocky Boy reservation, Big Sandy, Chester, Conrad, Dutton, the Galata County Water District, the Hill County Water District, the Loma County Water and Sewer District, the North Havre County Water District, Oilmont County Water District, Sage Creek County Water District, Shelby, Sunburst, the Sweetgrass Community Water and Sewer District, and the Tiber County Water District.

Havre declined to enter the agreement, proceeding with the upgrade on its own water plant instead. Communities east of Havre could not join the project because of the difficulty of routing the system around Havre.

The plan would solve a major problem for people at Rocky Boy, most of whom get their water from wells. Much of that water is not potable and the residents have to haul water to drink, reservation officials said.

The system will help people off the reservation with a more reliable source of water, and eliminate the need to upgrade multiple water treatment plants as water quality regulations change.

Robinson said the Bush administration has opposed the proposal because of its expense. But similar proposals have been opposed by administrations in the past, but have become reality, she said.

The estimated cost of the new system is $200 million. That would be spread out over the life of the construction, estimated at 10 years, Robinson said.

The money for the project would have to be appropriated in separate actions, Robinson added. The bills in Congress only authorize the project, and do not fund it.


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