Water projects top Tester’s priority list

Great Falls Tribune

Between the bank bailout, the stimulus bill and the 2009 federal budget, Congress is shelling out billions of dollars — but out of all that cash, Sen. Jon Tester is particularly pleased with a $500,000 appropriation for the St. Mary Canal rehabilitation project.

Tester met with Tribune editors Friday ahead of next week’s debate on the proposed 2009 budget, which includes $77 million for Montana projects.

Topping his list of funding pri¬orities are water and wastewater infrastructure, and building a power grid that would encourage wind farms and other rural energy development.

While the $500,000 doesn’t come close to covering the St. Mary project’s $153 million price tag, it will kick-start the work needed to prevent a catastrophic collapse, Tester said.

“It’s a wreck waiting to happen,” he said of the decaying waterways. “It’s worn out and it’s critical for the Hi-Line, both for agriculture and for recreation.”

The project is currently in political limbo.

The Army Corps of Engineers is assigned to manage the project, but it considers rehabilitating the 100-year-old system of canals and lifts a new project, and the corps isn’t allowed to start new projects.

While two other Hi-Line water projects stand to gain $17 million in the 2009 budget, Tester said the $500,000 for St. Mary will have the biggest impact because it opens the door for the Corps of Engineers to move forward.

Another $4.785 million will be divided among several Montana water projects, including the Upper/Lower River Road Water Sewer District in Great Falls and improvements to the water sys¬tem in Loma.

The appropriations bill also includes earmarks for Benefis Health System, the Great Falls Police Department and the Great Falls Development Authority to improve water infrastructure along Black Eagle Road.

The Browning school system stands to gain money for academic programs and equipment in its new high school, and the Chippewa Cree Tribe would receive money to refurbish Malmstrom housing units and transport them to the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

The budget also sets aside $1 million for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to purchase conservation easements along the Rocky Mountain Front and $100,000 to restore Havre’s historic post office and court¬house.

Tester said spending $410 billion for the current fiscal year may be tough to stomach following the approximately $700 billion doled out to banks and the $789 billion stimulus package.

“The debt does concern me, but we’ll never get that paid off if the economy is in the tank,” Tester said.

He said he hopes the fiery partisan politics will cool down in the weeks ahead as Congress takes on the task of passing the 2009 budget and, eventually, the 2010 budget.

“Neither party is very good at cutting back on spending,” he said. “I come to (the Senate Appropriations) Committee not with the idea of how can we spend money, but how can we spend money effectively.”

Tester defended the stimulus bill, saying it will pump money into needed infrastructure projects. The bill included no earmarks, but Tester said two major Montana projects are top priorities for those dollars.

The 214-mile Montana Alberta Tie Line — which would connect the electricity grids in Canada and the U.S. at Great Falls and Lethbridge — stands a good chance of getting competitive grants that are part of the stimu¬lus package, Tester said. Three wind-farm developers have pur¬chased the proposed line’s 600 megawatts of north-south capacity.

Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road construction project also tops the National Park Service’s priority list.