Havre Daily News
Residents, City Council members and city officials had mixed reactions upon hearing the new estimates of how much Havre water users would have to pay if the city decides to join the proposed Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System.
Some spoke of highly of the system but said the costs for users would be too great. Others say water is too precious a commodity to abandon an additional resource. Others are still undecided.
Havre users' water bills would increase by half or double if the city decided to join the system, with larger users seeing a smaller percentage increase in monthly bills.
Steve Burian, engineer and CEO of North Dakota-based Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services Inc., presented three possible scenarios for the city to join the system.
In one, Havre would abandon use of its current plant and get water solely from the regional system. In the other two options, Havre would supplement its supply with regional water. The latter two scenarios differ in the size of the pipeline used to connect Havre to the system.
City Council members have little more than six weeks to decide whether the city joins the system. Organizers have set a July 1 deadline for the 15 communities and water districts that have expressed interest. Construction on the water intake at Lake Elwell will begin in September, and engineers are in the process of designing the system's water treatment plant. The number of participants will determine the design. If any community opts out of the system before July 1, the chance of joining in the future is slim to none.
Havre would be the easternmost point in the proposed system, which would stretch north to the Canadian border, south to Dutton and west to Cut Bank. Water would be taken from the “very sustainable supply” at Lake Elwell, Burian said.
If constructed today, the system would use a treatment plant with a capacity of 25.1 million gallons per day to serve more than 26,000 residents across north-central Montana and on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. By 2050, the system is projected to serve more than 38,000 people.
If Havre fully participates in the system, the pipe constructed to connect the city to the system would have a capacity of 7.7 million gallons per day, Havre's projected peak-day need in 2050.
In the second scenario, the 7.7 million gallon pipe would be constructed, but Havre would take only 35 percent - or about 3 million gallons per day - of its water from the system. The treatment plant at Lake Elwell would be designed and constructed with that usage in mind, Burian said. In the future, if Havre city officials decided to enlarge their intake from the system, the treatment plant would have to be expanded to meet those needs.
In a third scenario, Havre's hookup would have a 3 million gallon per day capacity. In that case, future Havreites likely would never have the option of getting more water from the system, because it would be nearly impossible to get the funding needed to dig up and replace more than 50 miles of pipe to expand it from a 3 million gallon capacity to 7.7 million gallons per day.
Burian presented cost estimates, in 2007 dollars, that represent Havre's costs if it maintained its current billing amounts and added the costs associated with connecting to the Rocky Boy's/North Central system.
Water users would pay a flat monthly fee ranging from $12.22 to $14.11, depending on which of the three scenarios Havre chose. They now pay a fee of $10.04.
Users would also pay between $2.66 and $3.31 per 1,000 gallons of water, up from a current price tag of $2.15.
A household that uses 2,000 gallons of water each month now pays about $14. A user taking 25,000 gallons each month pays more than $63. If Havre joins the system, those users would pay rates ranging from less than $29 to almost $31, and about $90 to more than $106, respectively.
Burian said the costs to Havre users are among the cheapest in the proposed system. The formula used for setting the costs is based on each community's usage, meaning the costs differ among the towns, cities and water districts that would make up the system. Havre would make up about 40 percent of the system.
History and cost share
An ad hoc committee formed in 1993 to investigate the proposed regional system. The effort to build the project picked up steam in 1997, when the Chippewa Cree Tribe reached a settlement with the federal government and was awarded 10,000 acre feet in Lake Elwell.
In 2002, Congress approved the project with a $229 million price tag. Inflation and the rising cost of materials have brought that figure to about $267 million, Burian said.
The federal government will pay for 90 percent of the system. The project received $5.75 million from Congress last year. This year, it has requested more than $32 million. The U.S. House of Representatives' Appropriations Committee has approved $5.5 million in funding for this year. If approved in a House floor vote, the funding request will move to the Senate, where the dollar amount could change.
The state and local entities will be responsible for about $32 million of the system's cost. Through the Treasure State Endowment Program, the state will cover half of that cost, leaving water authority members with a bill of about $16 million. The authority plans to take out a 20-year State Revolving Fund loan to pay its share. Interest rates on those loans have remained at 3.75 percent for the last three years, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation bureau chief John Tubbs said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said he and public works director Dave Peterson estimate the city will have to pay $48 million in coming years to replace and upgrade its water distribution system.
“We anticipate water rates increasing for the next five years,” Rice said. He said the city averages 35 water main breaks each year, and said Havre's system is “rapidly deteriorating.”
Havre water bills now include money used to repay $9 million in loans borrowed by the city to upgrade its water treatment plant. The city makes annual payments of about $680,000. The loan is scheduled to be paid off in July 2023.
Havre now gets its water from the Milk River, which is kept flowing year-round by water transferred from the St. Mary River. The 29 miles of diversion facilities are nearly a century old and in danger of catastrophic failure. An effort to get Congress to foot most of the estimated $120 million bill for the repairs is under way, and federal lawmakers this summer may consider legislation to take responsibility for the fix.
Havre officials and residents vary in their opinions on whether the city should join.
“I've been on the fence with this,” Rice said. “I think it's a great project. If we have the money, by all means.”
Rice is one of three Havre representatives, along with Peterson and City Council member Gerry Veis, to the regional water authority. Veis and Peterson could not be reached for comment today.
City Council member Jack Brandon, who attended Tuesday's meeting along with Rice, Peterson, Veis, and City Council members Pam Hillery and Bob Kaftan, said he is still undecided on the proposal.
“I haven't made a final decision,” Brandon said today. “At the present time, I can't see how it can be affordable to the community. We have some serious problems facing us. We should join this system if it's affordable.”
Havre now uses two-thirds of its treatment plant's 6 million gallon per day capacity. The plant can be expanded be expanded to supply 9 million gallons of treated water each day, Peterson said.
Hillery said that, if the issue would come to a vote now, she would vote to join the regional system, despite the various concerns. She said Rice made “a very good point” when he noted the millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements needed in the city's system, but noted that the regional system is still 10 to 15 years away.
“I think we have time with this one,” she said. “Water is our most precious resource. I understand completely that cost is an issue.”
State Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said he believes the city should join the system to ensure a good supply of water.
“We really should go forward with our participation,” he said.
Resident Mike Topolosky said Havre should not join the system because of its cost.
“The poor people in Havre can't afford it,” he said.
City officials said they were disappointed with the turnout at City Hall on Tuesday night.
Rice noted that few of the two dozen people in attendance were residents who were unaffiliated with the system. Water authority members, engineers, tribal officials and state officials made up most of the audience.
Rice has repeatedly said he wants to give the public ample opportunity to offer their opinions on the system.
Brandon today said he was disappointed with the turnout and hopes Havreites share their opinions in coming weeks.
“I hope the community steps up and gives the City Council some input,” he said. “We need some input.”