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Petition will ask North Havre to approve water district

North Havre residents will hold a petition drive to decide if the community wants to form a water district.

About 18 residents of the unincorporated community met Thursday night with a committee appointed to study the issue. After about 1 hours, the majority of residents voted in favor of the petition. If the petition drive is successful, the Hill County Commission will hold public hearings to see if an election to create the district is justified.

Creation of a district would allow the community to apply for grants to help pay for a study to see what can be done to provide public water to North Havre.

Wayne Koepke, a member of the committee created by the Hill County Commission in June to study the question, said people in the community would have to help pay for the study.

"We know that there's no such thing as a free lunch. And if you want a free one you might as well walk out the door," Koepke said during the meeting.

Committee member Roy Wodarz pointed out that the community could end the process, before or after a water district is created, if residents decide they don't want to continue because of the expense or other reasons.

Koepke, Wodarz and committee members Debbie Walker and Ed Spinler were joined by Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Annmarie Robinson to conduct the meeting. It was held after a survey mailed out in September had a low response rate and mixed results about the support for a public water district.

Robinson said the reason for creating a district is that it could apply for grants to help pay for the study and eventually to create a water system. Grants from funds like the Treasure State Endowment Program can only be applied for by a public entity like a water district or incorporated community, she said.

The estimated cost of the study is $30,000, with a grant expected to pay half. The cost to each house would be about $40 in a one-time tax assessment, but could be less if the study costs less than expected, Robinson said today. If the district ended up being smaller, with fewer households, the cost per household would be higher.

Before the state will award a grant, it requires communities to commit to paying off a share of the construction and operation cost of a system, with a minimum monthly rate set based on the community's average income. Robinson said that is required because of intense competition for TSEP funds.

The minimum rate for a North Havre water bill would be $20.37 a month.

The district proposed in the petition would include all subdivided land in North Havre, both north and south of the river. If 10 percent of the registered voters living in the district sign the petition, the County Commission will hold public hearings about holding an election to create the district.

Bryce Arendt, who lives in North Havre north of the Milk River, told others at the meeting that the water quality isn't what it was years ago. He said he moved away from the area 30 years ago.

"Thirty years ago the water was as good as any could be. I moved back a year ago and it's not like it used to be. It tastes different, smells different," he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Arendt said he is willing to pay to find out what can be done to provide public water, and how much a public water system would cost.

"I'd like that. It only costs $40 to find out, $40 per household to find out," he said.

The study would identify possible sources of water. North Havre could be annexed by the city of Havre and join its water system, join the Rocky Boy/NorthCentral Montana Regional Water System now in the planning stages, build its own water treatment system for water from the Milk River, or drill a new well for the community. The study would identify the construction and anticipated operation costs of the alternatives identified.

North Havre residents use private wells as a source of water, with many using filters or other improvements, and only 57 percent of those who responded to the survey said they use it for drinking water.

Some at the meeting weren't so sure the projected figures are reasonable. Dale Hansonl said it seems unrealistic to project that that the system could be built in two to three years and at a a monthly rate of $20.37.

Hansonl said that based on what he has seen in the creation of a rural water district north of Havre, it would probably be 10 or 12 years, with costs possibly in the hundreds a month.

Robinson said the costs and timeline are reasonable when comparing North Havre to similar-sized communities, rather than the rural system north of Havre. Water typically costs between $25 and $35 a month in similar communities, she said today.

Arendt asked during the meeting if the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway could be asked to pay for the study.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has estimated that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel spilled or leaked at the railroad yards in North Havre between the 1940s and 1970s has seeped into the groundwater under the community. Other contaminants associated with railroad operations, such as solvents, have also been detected in the water under North Havre.

The contaminants have mostly been detected in North Havre between the river and the railroad tracks. Members of the committee said the plume of contaminants was extensively mapped by a consultant during a lawsuit residents filed against the railroad, which was settled in July.

DEQ has said recently that the contamination has not been detected at unacceptable levels in residents' well water. BNSF tests the water under North Havre on a regular basis.

Arendt said that $30,000 for a study probably seemed like a lot to everybody at the meeting, but it would be a drop in the bucket to BNSF.

"I would think it would buy a lot of good will for them," he added.

Robinson said she thinks that the settlement in the lawsuit, which was not disclosed to the public, prevented asking BNSF to pay for the study.


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