After 10 Years, Montana Water Project Closer to Funding

After 10 years of meetings, paperwork, drilling and water testing, a project that could supply well water to about 5,000 residents stretching 250 miles from the base of the Little Belt Mountains to Roundup is one step closer to reality.

?It’s getting scary,? joked Jim Kalitowski, of Harlowton, chairman of the Central Montana Regional Water Authority. “It’s closer to either succeeding or failing.?

The regional water system would begin near Utica and go northeast to Hobson and Moore, south to Judith Gap and Harlowton, then east to serve Ryegate, Lavina, Broadview, Melstone and Roundup. The estimated cost for the project is $87 million, funded by state, federal and local dollars.

Funds Needed

To request federal funding, though, the water authority has to appeal to Montana’s congressional delegation because federal authorization of the project requires legislation being passed by Congress, according to Bob Church of Great Western Engineering , which is working on the project.

For the state’s portion of the project, the water authority is reliant on the Treasure State Endowment Regional Water System Fund, which sunsets this year. House Bill 180 was introduced in the Legislature to retain the coal-tax funding to provide the much-needed matching funds. The bill passed the House 84-13 and now goes to the Senate.

The bill?s sponsor, Rep. Bridget Smith (D-Wolf Point), told the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the bill Feb. 18 that people in Poplar — a separate water project — are drinking water now that resembles iced tea for clarity.

?This bill is very important to the health and safety of all Montanans,? she said.

Testing, Testing

For the Central Montana Regional Water Authority to get this far, the authority first had to have its feasibility report approved by the Bureau of Reclamation — one of the filters used to reduce the number of projects proceeding onward. The Bureau of Reclamation signed off on the project in January.

?It’s a very detailed analysis of the supply, pipeline route and geo-technical (issues, and) a detailed cost estimate, full environmental clearances and an environmental assessment,? Church said about the report, which is about 1,800 pages long.

Also, because the water authority would tap into the Madison aquifer in a region where it hasn’t been tapped before, there were extensive well tests that had to be conducted to prove adequate water quality and quantity was available.

Those tests showed the average flow could produce 800 gallons per minute, 1.2 million gallons a day and meet a peak demand of 2,800 gallons per minute using on- site storage tanks to supply the water. Although initially the system is projected to serve 5,000 metered users, it would be built to accommodate growth to 7,500 users.

?Our project is using groundwater instead of surface water, so we would only have to chlorinate,? Church said. ?It’s cheaper to build wells than surface water treatment plants.?

Looking Ahead

Once approved, Church estimated it would take at least five years to build the project, working in phases and depending on the level of funding.

Kalitowski is hoping that Congress is willing to fund infrastructure projects like the one proposed by the Central Montana Regional Water Authority. Three similar projects, using surface water, are being developed in Montana: the Dry-Redwater project in Garfield, McCone, Richland, Dawson and Prairie counties is still a work in progress, but the Fort Peck-Dry Prairie project in northeast Montana and the Rocky Boy?s North Central Montana project have already been approved by Congress.

Kalitowski said fresh well water would be much appreciated in his town. The quality of Harlowton?s drinking water is poor — high in salts and minerals — and one of the town’s wells is threatened by a toxic plume of leaded gas in the groundwater, he said. ?That gives us incentive to get this going.?

Information contained in this news report was first reported by The Billings Gazette.

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