Editor's note: This is the first of two stories examining whether Havre should considering joining the Rocky Boy-North Central Montana Regional Water System.
Facing a sixth year of drought and potential water problems looming on the horizon, some residents of Havre are wondering if the city should revisit joining a regional system that will provide water to people in several counties in north-central Montana.
"Our lifeline is basically the Milk River, and there's some huge issues out there," said Chuck Wimmer, president of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce. "We're trying to educate the people in the community and business people about the importance of water."
About a dozen chamber members met with Annmarie Robinson of Bear Paw Development Corp. in January to talk about the possibility of Havre joining the Rocky Boy-North Central Montana Regional Water System. The system, which has been authorized by Congress but not yet funded, will treat water from Lake Elwell at Tiber Dam and provide it to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and communities and rural water systems in north-central Montana. It initially will serve about 18,000 people.
Wimmer said the chamber, and other city residents he has talked to, are concerned that depending on the Milk River for water could limit Havre's future and stretch its finances if it needed to increase its water supply.
"We only have so much water. If something would come in here and need a large supply of water, what would we do?" he asked. "If your water is limited, that could curb your growth."
In 1998, Havre notified a planning committee for the north-central Montana water project that the city would not join. Instead, Havre expanded and upgraded its water treatment plant, which treats water from the Milk River.
Dave Peterson, Havre director of public works, said the main reason Havre decided not to join the water system was twofold - the timing and the cost.
Havre had a pressing need and the date the water system would be operating was uncertain. Also, how much Havre would have to pay for its share was unknown, Peterson said.
"The city had problems at its water plant that had to be addressed," he added. "We've looked into (joining the regional system.) It just wasn't feasible for the city at the time."
Peterson, who was deputy director of public works when Havre decided not to join the regional system, said he doesn't foresee the city's water system leading to water shortages.
Havre hired an engineer in February of 1996 to prepare a proposal to upgrade the city's water treatment plant, two years before the city notified the committee it would not join the regional system.
The water treatment plant, which was built in the early 1950s, could not meet increasingly stringent federal water quality regulations and also was wearing out, he said. If the city had joined the regional water system, it would have had to continually "piecemeal" together upgrades to meet regulations until the regional system was operational, he said.
The city borrowed $8.4 million from the state in 2000 to upgrade the plant. The upgrade was completed late in 2002, after the contractor missed its original deadline by more than a year.
Chamber members at the January meeting said drought and questions about the future supply of water in the Milk River have made looking at joining the regional water system a high priority for the chamber.
Robinson said it would be very expensive for Havre to join the system at this late stage - possibly $34 million.
The cost is much lower for those water districts that have already joined. The federal and state governments are contributing most of the total cost of the project, $229 million. The total cost to the regional water authority will be $13.05 million, paid through a loan.
Robinson said the cost of paying back the loan will be spread evenly to the users of the North Central Montana Regional Water System as a monthly charge on their water bill.
Robinson said she can't say what the exact amount of the monthly charge to pay off the loan will be until the exact number of users is known, but early estimates were about $17 a month.
The loan amount will be added to the cost of the water itself, and to any charges by the local distributution system.
If Havre had joined the project in the late 1990s, the group could have asked Congress for a higher authorization to include much of the cost of connecting Havre to the system, Robinson said. If Congress had agreed, Havre's cost of joining the system likely would have been substantially reduced.
Several years after the fact, Congress likely won't change the authorization to fund Havre's participation in the project now, she said, meaning the city would have to fund the cost to connect to the system.
Gerry Grabofsky, Havre director of public works until he retired in the late 1990s, represented Havre at the regional water system planning meetings. He said that with the information he brought back, the city decided the expense was too high. It appeared the city would have to pay most or all of the $34 million to connect to the system, he said.
The other main concern was where the treatment plant would be located and who would control it, he said.
Havre decided it would be better to keep its local plant, with local control of the water treatment, Peterson said.
"We would have had no control over water quality," he added.
Peterson said there were other unknowns. The city would have had to contribute about $20,000 - $6 for each water customer - to pay for engineering studies for the project, and there was no guarantee that it wouldn't become a yearly charge, he said.
How much the city would have had to pay for the cost of constructing the system also was an unknown, he said. Because Havre already had a water treatment plant, unlike many of the water systems that joined the water authority, it may have been much harder to justify getting help to pay for the city's share, he said.
Since Havre didn't join, communities east of Havre didn't have the option.
Richard Mohar, Harlem's director of public works, said that community was interested in joining. However, since Havre didn't join, it would have been too costly to extend the system some 50 miles to hook up the relatively few users Harlem would have added, Mohar said.
"We probably would have (joined) if Havre had joined," he added.