Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) In the last 11 years, the city of Havre has had 255 water main breaks. The city’s public works director, Dave Pederson, says 46 of those breaks happened in the last two years alone.

“During main breaks, large sections of the city are without water for a long period of time,” Pederson said. 

Restoring Havre’s water system is at the top of a long list of water, sewer and other infrastructure projects across the state that lawmakers are considering in the 2023 Montana Legislature.

Total, there are nine bills introduced so far that ask the state to fund about $1.3 billion to projects. The funding comes from a mix of the general fund, essentially the state’s checkbook, and taking on debt through bonding.

Four of the bills got hearings in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long Range Planning in the Legislature’s fourth week. House Bill 6 gives money to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that the agency then allocates to renewable resource projects through grants.

House Bill 7 gives grants for reclamation and development, and House Bill 8 and House Bill 11, give loans and grants for infrastructure through the state's coal endowment program.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, chairs the committee, which is charged with creating the part of the state’s main budget bill that tackles most of the infrastructure spending. Hopkins is also the sponsor of House Bill 6 and House Bill 8 – the bills that deal with water infrastructure.

House Bill 6

HB 6 gives $6.25 million in grants to the DNRC to be passed on to local projects. Those grants are capped at $125,000 each, but can be combined with other programs such as a special coal endowment fund to offer more funding to projects.

“There is the extra goal here of trying to preserve, maintain, improve in some way shape or form interact with a renewable resource throughout the state of Montana,” Hopkins said. “Natural resource production in the state of Montana is helping us to build out Montana on the other end, which I think is pretty beautiful.”

Hopkins said there are 197 total water and sewer projects currently going through the appropriations process at the legislature.

The projects in HB 6 range from wastewater system improvements for towns like Kalispell, Choteau, Cascade, and West Yellowstone, to improving drinking water systems in Clancy.

Hopkins said these projects are necessary to be able to conserve renewable resources.

Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre, said this type of infrastructure is critical to a good economy. He said the programs from the DNRC have a dual purpose in helping establish necessary infrastructure while conserving natural resources.

"Oftentimes these communities are so small, they don't have financial resources to finance a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project to their water system," Tuss said. "The state of Montana fundamentally is partnering with these local communities to make sure that they have an infrastructure that's going to last for decades to come."

Cascade’s wastewater project was ranked as the highest priority on the list of project applicants. 

The town's proposal would replace over 7,000 feet of sewer main and rehabilitate lift stations.

“These small towns, we just can’t do it on our own,” Joe Voss, Cascade Water and Sewer Operator, said. “It doesn’t meet the standards now, and it needs to be upgraded. We’ve got a force main that is deteriorating to where whenever I’ve got to work on it, it takes so much time I’ve got to shut all sewer.”

The total cost of the project would be around $3 million, and the town is requesting $625,000 from the state legislature. 

Voss said most of the piping is in alleys and is covered by other networks such as gas, and that means he’s had to dig them out by hand.

The Havre water system project is also at the top of the list and requires the replacement of 23,000 feet of undersized leaking water mains and flush tanks. That project is estimated to cost more than $8.3 million total and the city has requested $500,000 from the state.

House Bill 8

HB 8 would also update water infrastructure in the state but is backed by money from the coal endowment. The loans paid out by the bill are from the coal-severance tax, or taxes generated through coal mined in the state.

The bill funds about $89 million to natural resource projects in the state. The projects include two dam rehabilitations in East Fork and Painted Rocks and a development in the Greenfields Irrigation District on the Fairfield Bench.

The bill also reauthorizes several significant projects that did not meet requirements laid out by the 2021 legislature. The largest project is the St. Mary's Diversion Project Local Share, which would cost about $40 million. 

It's a joint project between the state and the federal government to keep water flowing through the Milk River. 

The loan would require that the area set up a water users association to ensure that individuals and entities use the river's water to help pay off the loan.

Both Hopkins and Tuss talked about the necessity of these bills to update infrastructure across the state to help conserve natural resources and continue to grow the economy. The bills are early in the appropriations process and lawmakers will fine tune them as they debate the state’s spending in the rest of the Legislature’s 90-day session.

The only constitutional obligation of the Legislature is to pass a balanced budget. Unlike sessions in the past, the 68th Legislature is sitting on a more than $2 billion surplus but infrastructure projects will be stacked up against other priorities like social services, education funding and Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposals to return money to Montanans via income and property tax cuts and credits. 

Tuss said the aging infrastructure in the state has led to catastrophic failures and funding these water, sewer and natural resource projects is a critical issue for lawmakers.

"Anytime anybody wants to invest in our state's infrastructure, count me in because the truth is that the needs have far outstripped the available resources to deal with those needs," Tuss said.