Dry-Redwater plans a reset

by Jason Stuart, Ranger Review

The recent sunsetting of a federal law passed in 2006 has given some renewed hope that the languishing Dry-Redwater Regional Water Authority project may finally be able to inch forward from drawing board to reality.

The DRWA was first formed in 2005 and is jointly owned by the conservation districts of Dawson, Richland, McCone and Garfield counties, encompassing a planned service area of 11,791 square miles across those four counties as well as northern Prairie County. If completed, the project would provide fresh, treated water from a new intake and treatment plant located on the North Fork of Rock Creek on the Fort Peck Reservoir and piped to rural homes, farms and ranches across the service area. The project would also replace the existing well water systems for the towns of Richey, Lambert, Circle and Jordan.

Also included in the DRWA project area are the West Glendive subdivisions of Forest Park and Highland Park.
According to DRWA coordinator Mandi Nay, both subdivisions paid an initial fee to join the project when it was first conceived in 2005. Both subdivisions currently rely on well water for residential use, with Highland Park’s well water in particular having a reputation for being dirty.

“Yes, both Highland Park and Forest Park have given us what’s called a ‘good intention fee,’ meaning they intend to connect to Dry-Redwater,” Nay said.

At full build-out, the DRWA would service approximately 26,500 people.

So far, however, aside from a partnership with the city of Sidney to build a water pipeline to the south of the city along Highway 16 – which went online in 2014 using Sidney water – the DRWA largely exists only on paper.

Ten years ago, the DRWA seemed poised to gain federal authorization, a step necessary to gain access to federal funding. That’s a huge need for the project to get going, as the estimated cost of completing the project is $260 million and the federal government will provide 75 percent of the funding for authorized rural water projects like DRWA.

In June 2006, DRWA wrapped up the required feasibility study to gain federal authorization and appeared ready to get authorized and in line to begin receiving federal funding.

But the rug got pulled out from under the project when Congress passed the Rural Water Supply Act of 2006, which re-wrote the rulebook on the feasibility study process. DRWA was later informed by the feds that their original feasibility study, which was already completed, was no longer valid even though it had been completed before that bill became law, and that they would have to begin the whole process over again.

Even worse than the passage of that 2006 bill, according to Nay, is the fact that over the course of a full decade, the federal agencies responsible for enforcing the act – the Department of Interior/Bureau of Reclamation – never finalized the written rules to enact the bill’s provisions.

That made completing another feasibility study impossible, and DRWA ultimately gave up trying to complete another feasibility study given the cost and the uncertainty that any good would come of it since the draft rules were constantly changing and there were never any finalized rules to go by.

However, the Rural Water Supply Act of 2006 was only in effect for 10 years, and so the law came off the books at the end of 2016, and that has given Nay the first hope in years that DRWA might actually be able to move forward.

“The (Rural Water Supply Act) sunsetting is probably a blessing in disguise,” Nay said. “Hopefully, we can revert back to the way things were done beforehand.”

However, whether or not that will be the case remains to be seen. Nay and other DRWA officials have already had meetings with BOR officials, who are reportedly in limbo about how exactly to proceed since the law sunsetted.

“They’re not saying much of anything,” Nay said of the BOR. “Right now, they don’t really know what the plan is, is what we were told.”

She, however, is confident that the sunsetting of the Rural Water Supply Act will ultimately benefit DRWA and allow it to move forward towards federal authorization.

“I do (think the law sunsetting is beneficial), because it became apparent to me after an extended period of time where the rules weren’t going to be finished that it just wasn’t going to happen,” Nay said. “Reverting back to the way things were done previously is the best option when the other option is broken.”

Another way to get the DRWA authorized would be for Congress to simply pass legislation authorizing it,
therefore circumventing the BOR’s authorization process.

Montana senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester introduced legislation in the last Congress to do just that. Their bill cleared committee and was scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate, but it never got brought forward before the last Congress adjourned. However, Nay said both have assured her that they fully intend to reintroduce that legislation soon.

“Both Daines and Tester have agreed and they intend to reintroduce something by the first quarter of 2017,” she said.

The Ranger-Review sent a request for comment to both Daines’ and Tester’s offices, but only Tester’s responded before press time.

“Jon shares the frustration of folks in northeastern Montana who have been pushing for this project for years,” said Tester spokesman Dave Kuntz. “Jon will be working with the new Interior Secretary and the new Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner to move the Dry-Redwater project forward so farmers, ranchers, irrigators, and communities can access clean water.”

It could certainly help DRWA’s cause that the person nominated to be the next Secretary of the Interior is Montana congressman Ryan Zinke.

Even if the project is authorized, however, finding the funding for it is the next hurdle. As noted, the federal government will pay up to 75 percent of the costs of such projects, but like anything else, actually securing that appropriation from Congress can be a tough fight.

To help fund rural water projects, Tester did introduce a bill in the last Congress to establish a guaranteed annual investment of $80 million a year for the next 20 years to fund construction and upgrades of authorized rural water systems. Kuntz said Tester intends to introduce legislation in this Congress not only to authorize DRWA, but to fund its construction.

“As a member of the (Senate) Appropriations Committee, Jon is committed to getting this project the resources it needs to provide folks in the area with a clean, reliable source of water,” Kuntz said.

Even with 75 percent federal funding, however, DRWA would still need to raise tens of millions of dollars through state funding, grants or loans to complete it.

That could become even more problematic if Gov. Steve Bullock gets his way.

There is a special revenue account within the Coal Tax Trust Fund which provides funding for construction of rural water projects. The amount available in the account to rural water projects at present – $6.07 million – isn’t great, but it’s something. However, Bullock has proposed in his budget to eliminate that fund and transfer the remaining balance into the state general fund.

Nay said if the Legislature agrees to that proposal, it would be a big blow for DRWA and other rural water projects in various stages of planning and construction across the state.

“It’s a staple for forward movement for parts of the state reliant on rural water projects,” she said of the state’s special account. “It absolutely is essential.”

For the time being, however, the first focus has to be on just getting DRWA authorized after the project has spent a full decade lost in limbo, and for the first time in a long time, Nay has some rays of hope that the project might actually come to fruition.

“We’re going to start over and pretend like the last 10 years didn’t happen,” she said.