City urged to consider joining water project
The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce wants the city of Havre to consider joining the Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water System.
"I think it's something the City Council needs to address," said Chuck Wimmer, president of the chamber. "We have to take a really close look at this and do it in a very short order."
Wimmer and other chamber board members met Friday with Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp., to talk about joining the proposed regional water system. The system, which has been authorized but not yet funded by the U.S. Congress, will provide treated water to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and 15 municipal and rural water systems in north-central Montana.
The city of Havre declined to join the project when Bear Paw contacted it in the late 1990s and again in 2001, Robinson said.
"We had an opportunity and we passed it up," chamber executive director Debbie Vandeberg said at the meeting.
Havre public works director Dave Peterson, who was deputy director of public works when the issue first came before the city, said Havre declined to join for several reasons.
One was the need to pay a yearly fee to be a part of the system until it was actually built. Also, the city didn't know how long it would be before the system was available.
The city needed an immediate upgrade to its water treatment plant, and couldn't wait for the new system, Peterson said.
Another problem was giving control of treatment of the city's water to someone outside of the city, he said.
"We wouldn't have control over the operation of the plant," Peterson said.
Robinson said the city should contact North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, which is overseeing the new system, as soon as possible if it is interested in joining. She said the water systems that have already joined the regional system must confirm by October that they will remain a part of it. Once the regional system is funded, no rural or municipal system will be able to back out.
Havre City Council member Emily Mayer Lossing said she doesn't remember the City Council having a detailed discussion about joining the regional system. She said she thinks Mayor Phyllis Leonard and her staff made the decision.
Mayer Lossing said she would be willing to discuss joining the system again, as long as new information is presented in the discussion.
"If it's just rehashing old information, I think we have other important issues to consider," Mayer Lossing said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said last week he is willing to look at the idea, but that Havre doesn't have money to spend on it. He said that since Havre took out an $8 million loan to nearly double the capacity of its water treatment plant and install computerized equipment, it would be difficult to justify investing in a different program.
"We just spent a ton of money on our water plant," Rice said. "I'm open to anything, but I'd have to listen to the proposal. If it costs us a bunch of money, we don't have any."
Wimmer said he believes that most residents and business owners in Havre weren't aware of the benefits of the system, and that people don't realize Havre can still join the system.
Several factors have arisen that cause him and others to question whether the Milk River, which supplies Havre's water, will be able to supply enough water in the future, he said. They include the effects of five or six years of drought, and the possibility of the failure of the system that diverts water from St. Mary River into the Milk River. That system has deteriorated, and a group led by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs is lobbing Congress for money to rebuild it.
Also, Canada is considering building dams to hold more of the Milk River water it is allowed under a treaty with the U.S. government, Wimmer said.
The regional water project was proposed as part of the Rocky Boy water compact with the state and federal governments. A plant at Tiber Dam would treat water from Lake Elwell, then pipe the water to the reservation and to communities and rural water systems in north-central Montana.
The existing water systems would continue to distribute the water provided from Lake Elwell.
Robinson said Congress has authorized a project with an estimated cost of $229 million. The federal government will pay all of the costs for the reservation and 80 percent of the rest of the cost.
The state and the local systems will split the remaining cost of $26 million.
If Havre were to join at this point, it would cost the city about $34 million, which the city would have to fund itself, she said.
An engineering study identified savings that could allow another community to join at the current $229 million price tag, Robinson said, adding that Cut Bank has indicated it may be interested.
If Cut Bank decides not to join the system or if other systems drop out, some of the savings could be applied to Havre, substantially reducing the $34 million cost, Robinson said.
Robinson recommended the city open discussions with the water authority as soon as possible.
The first payment Havre would need to make is a $6 payment for each household the system would serve. That money would pay for an engineering study to determine what changes would need to be made to the system to include Havre, she said.
The payments for construction wouldn't begin until the city started receiving water, which would take at least six years once Congress funds the project, she said. But once the North Central Montana Regional Water System Authority starts accruing debt for the project, no system would be allowed to back out of joining the system, she said.