The annual battle for drinkable water in rural Montana is on.
Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, have put forth a 20-year plan to spend $80 million a year on Montana rural water projects, most of which have been funded a few million dollars at a time since first being endorsed by Congress in 2000.
Congress has never fully opened the spigot on funding. Hi-Line clean water projects once slated for completion in 2010 are now expected to last into the early 2020s. Time and inflation have increased construction costs by $100 million.
"We still have a long way to go, let's call it $115 to $120 million we would need to receive in federal funding to complete both parts of the project," said Joni Sherman of the The Fort Peck/Dry Prairie Rural Water System.
Sherman oversees the Dry Prairie portion of the project from Culbertson. Her counterparts are in Poplar on the Fort Peck Reservation.
In this part of Montana, groundwater often runs rust red and smells of sulfur, or there's no water at all. Appliances don't last long, and clothes, stained by minerals in the wash water, can come out looking soiled.
The Fort Peck/Dry Prairie Rural Water System is intended to fix all that with 3,200 miles of pipe and treated water drawn from the Missouri River. The project stretches 131 miles from Nashua to Plentywood. In 2000, the estimated cost of the project was $197 million. It's $300 million now.
The story is much the same for the The Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System, which treats water for communities from Rocky Boy's Agency to Cut Bank, a 150-mile swath of the north-central part of Montana. This was a $229 million project when it was authorized in 2002, said Jody Hellegaard, manager of the North Central Montana Regional Water System. Time hasn't been kind to the bill.
"What's happened is when they authorized it, they didn't fully fund it," Hellegaard said. "The funding has trickled in. There's a measurement to adjust the cost for that. It's called indexing. It's now at $377 million."
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on the Montana bill Wednesday, during which the Department of Interior made its case for funding rural water projects.
“Rural water projects help to build strong, secure rural communities,” said Alan Mikkelsen, senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on water and western resources. Mikkelsen said the Interior also supported firming up American Indian tribal water rights and compensating tribes for land lost to reservoirs.
The water projects were originally launched to settle tribal water issues with the federal government.
“Every Montana family and business needs reliable access to clean water,” Tester said in a press release. “Folks in rural areas have been waiting too long for these projects to be completed and this bipartisan bill will authorize the funding needed to invest in infrastructure, increase access to clean water, and create good paying jobs.”
Daines has brought samples of rust-colored untreated Eastern Montana water to the Senate floor to show the need for water treatment.
“Clean and reliable water is a basic necessity for all Montana families,” Daines said in emailed statement. “As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will fight to make sure these projects receive the funding they need to deliver clean water.”
Later Wednesday, Tester sent a letter to President Donald Trump about rural water project funding. The president had proposed cutting funding to the two Montana projects by roughly $18 million, leaving $8.6 million for the two in the budget year starting next October. Similar reductions were proposed for projects in North and South Dakota.
It’s Congress who writes the federal budget and will decide how much money is spent on rural water projects. Presidential budget requests are more for discussion, but do indicate what the executive would prefer.