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Does Havre need more water to grow?

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories examining whether Havre should considering joining the Rocky Boy's-North Central Montana Regional Water System.

Several issues have come to the fore since Havre in 1998 opted out of the huge water project that will provide water from Lake Elwell to more than 18,000 people in north-central Montana. Those issues should cause Havre to re-examine that decision, a number of local business leaders say.

Chuck Wimmer, a banker who is president of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said many of the issues weren't well-known or understood when the decision was first made in 1998.

Those concerns include the effects of drought; the possible failure of the St. Mary Diversion, which supplies water to the Milk River; the possibility of Canada damming the river; and Havre's lack of water rights to the Milk River.

"These issues really weren't prevalent like they are today," Wimmer said. "The people I have talked to, they feel it's a concern."

Wimmer wants Annmarie Robinson, coordinator of the Rocky Boy's-North Central Montana Regional Water System, to make a presentation about the system to the Havre City Council and the public.

Havre decided in the mid-1990s that the price of joining the system would be too expensive. Instead the city took care of pressing problems with its own water treatment plant, said Dave Peterson, Havre director of public works.

Havre would face a serious impediment if it chose to join the water system now. Congress has already authorized $229 million for the system and would be unlikely to up that amount to include Havre, Robinson said. That would require the city to come up with money to join the system, a cost estimated at $34 million in about 1997.

Milk River water

Robinson, who is also deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said she thinks concerns about a limited supply of water from the Milk River are legitimate.

Havre has a contract with the federal Bureau of Reclamation to take water from the Milk River. It then treats the water and distributes it to water users in the city. Scott Guenthner of the Bureau of Reclamation said the city in 1992 renewed its contract for 40 years.

Municipal contracts for Milk River water are only a small fraction of the water released for irrigation, he said. Havre's allotment is less than 1 percent of the average amount released from Fresno Reservoir every year, he said. The Chinook and Harlem allotments are smaller still.

Guenthner said that while he doesn't expect Havre will lose its water contract with the Bureau of Reclamation or see serious reductions in its annual allotment, he can't predict exactly how much water will be available from year to year.

"There is no way you can absolutely guarantee a supply regardless of the river you are on," Guenthner said.

Bob Larson, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation manager for the Havre and Glasgow regions, said the Havre water supply could cause problems for future growth.

Havre's supply of water - it has an annual allotment of about 2,800 acre-feet and uses about 1,700 acre-feet a year - has been a reliable supply to this point, but doesn't leave much room for expansion, Larson said.

"Havre's not really growing but Havre really doesn't have any source of water for future development," he said. "If anyone came in here, one of the first things they would look at is the water supply."

If a project needed a lot of water, like the malting plant being constructed north of Great Falls, Havre's water supply could be a problem, he said.

The St. Mary Diversion is a key element in Havre's water supply. Before it was built, the Milk River usually dried up. Records show that settlers in the late 1800s had to dig into the river bed to get water, Larson said.

The diversion, one of the first projects the bureau was authorized to work on when it was created in 1902, stores water in Lake Sherburne in Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The water is released from Sherburne, then diverted from the St. Mary River into the North Fork of the Milk River.

The diversion was built specifically to supply water to irrigators, but municipalities and recreationalists use the river, and it has created an immense stretch of wildlife habitat. Individuals and eight irrigation districts contract for irrigation water. The Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap, Fort and Blackfeet Indian reservations all have claims on Milk River water dating back to a treaty in 1888, Larson said.

"The Milk River is basically overappropriated down here," Larson said.

The tribes' rights to the Milk River are close to finally being establishied. Congress has yet to approve awater compact with the Fort Peck Indian Reservation approved by the state in 1985. A water compact with Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation was ratified by the state in 1987 and approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1999.

The Fort Belknap water compact was approved by the state in 2001 and is still being negotiated in Congress.

The wild card is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation: Its water compact is still being negotiated on the state level. Larson said that while the Blackfeet Tribe could make claims on the Milk River, the compact could exchange that claim on the Milk for allocations from the Marias River or from Lake Elwell.

One of the concerns of Havre residents is the potential failure of the St. Mary Diversion, much of which is old and deteriorating. The diversion provides up to 70 percent of the water in the river in an average year. In the drought year of 2001, it supplied more than 90 percent of the water in the river.

Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs heads a task force trying to get Congress to fund rehabilitation of the diversion, at an estimated cost of more than $100 million.

Peterson said he is confident Ohs' group will succeed because of the number of government agencies and and private organizations involved in the effort and the large number of people dependent on the diversion.

Canada has plans

Another concern some Havre business leaders have is the possibility that Canada may build a dam to store its share of water from the Milk River, reducing the amount flowing into Montana.

Sherri-Dawn Annett, spokeswoman for the Alberta Department of Environment, said last Monday that Alberta Environment Minister Lorne Taylor is reviewing a preliminary study about building a dam or an off-stream storage reservoir. Albertans who live near the river have said they need a more sustainable water supply, she said.

A treaty signed in 1909, after construction had started on the St. Mary Diversion, set how much water each country was entitled to from the Milk and St. Mary rivers. Much of Canada's share flows into Montana during the peak runoff season in the spring and early summer.

Annett said Taylor will review the study and in a few months decide whether further studies should be done or the idea set aside.

Guenthner said it's difficult to predict the impact on people who use water from the Milk River if Canada builds a damn.

"There would be an impact but we don't know the amount," he said.

Even if a dam is built, he added, water would continue to be released to Montana users.

"They can hold more water, but not more than the treaty allows," he said.

Gov. Judy Martz has requested the international commission that oversees U.S.-Canadian water treaties and agreements to revisit a 1921 agreement regulating the Milk and St. Mary rivers, citing a Montana study that found Canada receives a higher share of the rivers than does the United States.

Lingering drought

Very dry conditions in February and March and warm temperatures that are causing the mountain snowpack to melt faster than average could lead to very low stream levels once again this year, according to DNRC.

The impact of drought on Havre's water supply also is difficult to predict, Guenthner said. During drought years, the Bureau of Reclamation typically reduces the amount allotted to users, trying to spread the shortage equitably among users, he said.

Since Havre typically only uses about two-thirds of its allowance, that shouldn't have much impact, he said. The main problem during drought years is the higher-than-usual amount of sediment in the water released from Fresno Reservoir because of its low water level, increasing the time and amount of chemicals needed to treat the water, Guenthner said.

The city of Havre is dependent on the irrigators in another way. The irrigators must approve municipal contracts, Guenthner said. The irrigators did so recently when Harlem renewed its contract.

Guenthner said he doubts the irrigators would ever refuse to approve a municipal contract.

"The agricultural users up there, they rely on those communities," he said.

Peterson, the Havre public works director, said he thinks the city's water system can provide for Havre's water needs, now and into the future.

The upgraded water treatment plant can keep up with any future changes in EPA regulations for water quality without additional construction, he said.

"From what we can see, from what the engineers can see, it will meet our needs for the foreseeable future," he said. "This is, I guess, what you would call a state-of-the-art plant."

The city also has wells, but they are only approved for emergency use. Peterson said the quality of the well water makes it difficult to treat for general use. The well that produces the largest amount of water, located at Pepin Park, has such a high level of nitrates it can't be used for emergency drinking water, he said.

If Havre has an increased need for water the Milk River can't meet, the city has other options, including drilling deeper wells that would supply treatable water, he said.


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