By Alex Ross
TIBER DAM – Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., joined leaders of the Chippewa Cree Tribe and officials from nearby communities, for a groundbreaking ceremony at Tiber Reservoir Friday for Rocky Boy‘s Water Treatment Plant, part of the Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional Water System Project.
“Today really does mark a significant milestone for the Rocky Boy/ North Central Montana Regional Water Project, for the more than 30,000 folks in nearby communities who will benefit from this project,” Bullock said.
“We can’t ever take clean water and access to it for granted, it is essential to the health and safety of our Montanans,” he added.
Tester, who farms west of Big Sandy, one of the communities that will be served by the project, said the system could bring economic development to the region.
“Bottom line is, water is life,” Tester said. “If you want to have a grocery store, or a restaurant, or a hardware shop or even a farm it all starts with water.”
He said that once the project is completed it will change North Central Montana, the way rural electric associations did when they brought electricity to rural areas.
When it is completed, the facility will treat 35.5 million gallons of water a day and provide a source of clean drinking water to Rocky Boy and 22 other water districts in Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Liberty, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties; an area of 6.8 million acres.
Ken Gopher, a tribal elder with the Chippewa Cree, opened the ceremony with a prayer.
Later, drum group Montana Cree from Rocky Boy ended the event with a song.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., gave apologies that they could not attend, though each sent representatives to read prepared statements.
“Congratulations on Rocky Boy‘s Water Treatment Plant groundbreaking,” Daines said in his statement.
He said water is a basic need of life and far too often the needs and challenges of rural communities are overlooked in Washington, D.C.
“I commend the Chippewa Cree Tribe for leading this project at every step from planning to construction,” Gianforte said in his statement. “The Rocky Boy/North Central Montana Regional water system has the potential to improve surrounding communities by providing greater water security and increasing opportunities for residents.”
The project began in 1997 when the Chippewa Cree and the state negotiated a water rights claim that allocated 10,000 acre feet in the Tiber to the tribe. The Montana Legislature and later Congress ratified the agreement which was signed into law in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. The project which was meant to supply water to the reservation soon expanded to other communities.
President George W. Bush signed in 2002 the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water System Act that authorized the design and construction of the project.
Larry Bonderud, the mayor of Shelby and president of the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, an organization made up of representatives from water districts outside Rocky Boy, thanked the Chippewa Cree for reaching out to other communities to make the project possible.
“You didn’t have to include us, it was your water rights settlement, it was your water,” Bonderud said. “Most people don’t realize that was the start of this partnership.”
Speakers hailed the project as a successful partnership where communities have been able to set aside differences in the spirit of collaboration.
“It boils down to partnerships,” said Dean Stockert, the project engineer for AE2S, the Great Falls-based firm which is working on the project.
He said the definition of partnership is “establishing a long-term, win-win relationship based on mutual trust and teamwork.”
“That is what we have been able to do here since I have been involved,” he said.
Speakers acknowledged that a great deal of work remains to be done. When planning and construction of the system was first authorized in 2002, the overall project was estimated to cost $229 million, but because of inconsistent funding, completion has been delayed and the price tag has now soared to $377 million.
Tester said about $80 million has been spent so far on the project and another $5 million is being set aside for the project. He said that is not enough.
“This is a big project,” he said. “This encompasses a lot of land mass, and we have to find a way to get this project done more (quickly), that is going to involve finding more dollars which are hard to find in Washington D.C right now.”
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