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Living with North Havre water

Some people in North Havre will go to a lot of trouble to get a glass of water. Some will go to the grocery store, and some will send as far away as Great Falls.

"I never drank this to start with," said Ed Dobrenz, who started renting a house in the unincorporated community in the mid-1990s.

Dobrenz said that when he first moved in, he bought his own drinking water and used the well water at his house only for cleaning and irrigation. About a year or so ago, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway began providing water for some residents in North Havre, and now Dobrenz drinks that.

The water, which is a little rusty where he lives, is tough on laundry. But, he said, he doesn't have a washing machine anyway, so he does his laundry in Havre. For other uses, the water isn't so bad, he said, except that he has to clean his bathtub every time he uses it so it won't get stained.

"You can use (the water) for washing dishes and stuff like that, cleaning floors," Dobrenz said.

He added that he uses the water to irrigate his lawn.

"It grows good grass," he said.

Almost everyone in North Havre gets water from a well. But the water generally isn't very good water.

After years of having problems with rust, odor and, in some cases, pollution in their water supply, some North Havre residents have started looking at creating a water district to supply treated water. The idea has had mixed support since it was raised at a public meeting July 17.

A total of 117 households in the community, population 973, responded to a survey Bear Paw Development Corp. sent out in September, mainly to determine the interest in a water district. Nearly three-quarters of the people who responded said there was some problem with their water: 71 percent said it is rusty, 52 percent said their water smells bad, 48 percent said it tastes bad, 48 percent said it leaves stains, and 40 percent said it's salty.

Only 52 percent of the people who responded said they were interested in joining a public water system.

What people do to treat the water varies, from doing nothing to using some very technologically advanced - and sometimes expensive - systems.

Krimhild Knowles treats all of the water she uses in her home, including using reverse osmosis and distillation. She said she mostly uses the devices as a precaution to keep her children and herself safe from health problems.

The water is all right even without treatment, although it doesn't taste very good if it's untreated, she said.

Sam Vogel said he owns three buildings in North Havre and one in Havre. The quality of the water in North Havre depends on the well, where it is and how deep it is, he said.

One of the rental houses he has in North Havre has good water, and another has water with some odor, he said. At his own home just north of the Milk River, he boils it before he drinks it.

"In fact, it tastes pretty good when it's boiled," he said.

For other uses, like washing clothes, Vogel said his water is the best in the world.

His daughter, Debbie Erickson, lives next door to Vogel. She uses a water softener, and said that as long as she remembers to keep it filled with rust-reducing salt, she has no problems, although she said she knows other people who do have problems.

Erickson's water, both water run through the softener and water just filtered through her refrigerator, doesn't taste much different from the treated water in Havre.

She said the softener gives her excellent water for cleaning, and never leaves a ring in the bathtub or toilet. Sometimes it does leave a yellowish stain in her sink, she said. Her dishwasher also gets a little yellow sometimes.

"I put a little oxalic acid in it and it makes it look brand new," Erickson said.

If she forgets to use her rust-reducing water softener salt, she does start seeing stains, Erickson said.

She said using a softener makes sense for anyone with hard water.

"It's senseless to me not to have one if you have a well with any mineral problems," she said.

Erickson said she isn't interested in moving from North Havre or in creating a public water district.

"This drilled well is fine with me. I don't consider it a problem," she said.

Some people who live between the Milk River and the railroad tracks have an additional problem. The state Department of Environmental Quality has reported a plume of contaminants, including diesel fuel, solvents and other chemicals, in the groundwater under that area. Most of the chemicals are associated with railroads. DEQ estimates that as much as 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel that spilled or leaked at the railroad yards in North Havre seeped into the groundwater between the 1940s and 1970s.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has been working with DEQ since the 1980s to reduce the contamination.

BNSF in July settled a class action suit filed by about 80 residents of North Havre. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

New contamination associated with a solvent used by railroads was detected last year. BNSF is negotiating with DEQ on a proposal to mitigate that contamination.

The railway regularly tests the water, and DEQ reports that the level of contaminants in the tested wells is within acceptable standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Debbie Erickson's sister-in-law, June Erickson, worried about the contamination. She moved from North Havre, between the river and the railroad tracks, to Havre in June. She said her family moved because of the water.

"It was contaminated. It's kind of scary when you have little ones over there," she said.

Erickson said she used a water softener to try to eliminate the rust and odor but it didn't work very well.

BNSF started providing bottled water to some residents in North Havre about September of last year. The Great Falls office of Lewistown-based Big Spring Water ships about 100 5-gallon jugs and some 3-gallon jugs to North Havre every week, office manager Sandi Dick said.

Karin Breum, who owns Midtown Car Care Service in North Havre with her husband, Bob, said they drink the water BNSF supplies them, but use water as it comes out of the tap for other purposes.

She lives in Havre, but her son lives on the north side and she owns some rentals in North Havre.

The situation in the rentals shows the variation in the area, she said. One rental has a water softener, and the other has good water and doesn't need anything.

"They have better water than I do downtown," Breum said.

For those who decide to treat their water because of the water's taste, it can be expensive. Lorraine Trulson, owner of the Tip It Bar on the north side, said she had a filtering service installed both in her home and her business about 10 or 12 years ago. The systems totaled about $5,000.

It made all the difference, she said. Before she had them installed, she couldn't use the bar's water to make coffee or ice because of the taste. The customers noticed the difference immediately, Trulson said.

Others aren't so happy. Jason Perkins moved into a house north of the Milk River about three years ago, he said. His family uses a system of water softeners and purifiers.

"Without it we get a lot of rust. Even with it you don't want to drink (the water)," Perkins said.

He said the water creates other problems. The Perkinses can't use bleach in their laundry, because it turns the water brown and stains the clothes, he said. The water leaves stains in the sinks even with the treatment system on, he said.

Perkins said he likes living in North Havre, but the water is so bad he would rather live in Havre. He said he supports creating a public water system in North Havre.

"It's what's needed," he said.

John Wenger moved into a house north of the Milk River about four years ago. His family uses a filter and a softener. He said the water is still rusty and smelly.

"Our water's still bad," he said.

Wenger's water has a slight sulfur odor, and a faint, unpleasant taste that lingers in the mouth.

"You get used to it after a while," he said.

The water turns his white laundry brown and leaves a stain in his sink and bathtub.

"It takes quite a bit of scrubbing to get rid of it," Wenger said.

He said his family isn't very happy about the water, but he thinks the cost of switching his water supply from the well to a public system would be much higher than he wants to pay.

The Hill County Commission appointed a committee earlier this year to find out whether people in North Havre are interested in creating a public water district to distribute treated water to homes in the community.

The proposal met with some support and some opposition. After Bear Paw Development conducted its survey and two public meetings were held, the committee decided to move forward with a petition drive. If 10 percent of the registered voters in the proposed district sign the petition, an election will be held on creating the district.

The petition drive has not been completed.


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