Central Montana water project gets boost from Congress

About 6,000 rural Montanans are one step closer to having high-quality well water available to their homes and businesses.

Congress has authorized the Clean Water for Rural Communities Act, although the approval came four years later than originally assumed. This gives the Central Montana Regional Water Authority formal consent to seek federal funding to develop its rural water system. The system will service residents in and near nine communities west and south of the Big Snowy Mountains.

“We’ve been working since 2014 to get authorization, so it is a big deal,” said Monty Sealey, project administrator.

The act provides no funding for the project, which carries an estimated $87 million price tag.

“We still have to come up with the money,” Sealey said, in a combination of grants and loans.

“In order for us to seek federal appropriations the project has to be authorized,” said Bob Church of Great West Engineering, which has designed the project.

Money to support the project so far has come from the Montana Coal Board, Treasure State Regional Water Program, the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Agriculture Rural Development and legislative appropriations to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The congressional authorization allows the project to be ranked in the yearly budget appropriation for the Bureau of Reclamation for funding.

“We’re the new kid on the block, so we may be on the bottom of the list,” Sealey said, although some of the other big water projects in Montana are nearing completion. “So we’re really encouraged. This whole thing has taken a long, long time. There are a lot of rules, and a lot of money is involved.”

The next phase of the project is to begin constructing the 24-mile pipeline to Harlowton, servicing about 35 rural users along the way. The project also includes a storage tank and building for control and disinfection. North and west of Garneill three wells have been drilled to supply water for the project. The first phase should be finished by the summer or fall of 2022.

“That’s pretty much shovel ready,” Sealey said.

Work could begin in May on that first part of the pipeline, which will eventually stretch 250 miles and service small communities along the Musselshell River, including: Shawmut, Ryegate, Lavina, Roundup and Melstone. Off-shoots from the pipeline could service the communities of Judith Gap, Hobson, Moore and Broadview.

Sealey said the water authority is still seeking funding for the other phases of the project.

Since 2001, Sealey has been working on the plan to bring quality drinking water to communities in the region. The first well was drilled near Utica in 2003. It plunges to a depth of 3,700 feet.

Existing water supplies serving communities along the Musselshell River suffer from high levels of minerals, nitrates and sulfates. Roundup gets its water from an old coal mine. Melstone’s supply dwindles in drought years. Flooding of the Musselshell River has destroyed existing pipelines. Harlowton’s water supply is also threatened by an underground benzene plume, and the town has been working to replace 80-year-old leaky water pipes. The well water for the new project will only need to be chlorinated. Much of the new pipeline will be gravity fed.

Construction would be completed in five phases. Supplying Harlowton would be phase one and cost around $17 million. Phase two would deliver water to Roundup and rural users along the line.

The congressional act also approved $5 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to review a feasibility study for the Dry-Redwater project in Garfield, McCone, Richland, Dawson and Prairie counties. Montana U.S. senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester have supported the authorization in Congress.

Other large rural water projects in the state include the Fort Peck Dry Prairie Regional Water System and Rocky Boy North Central Regional Water Authority.