Watershed meeting revives water project interest


Roger Lohrer outlines some statistics about the Musselshell-Judith Rural Water Project during Monday’s Big Spring Watershed Council Meeting at the Lewistown Public Library.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Monday’s Big Spring Watershed Council meeting brought attention to more than Brewery Flats. It returned a spotlight to the Musselshell-Judith Rural Water Project with a presentation by the Central Montana Resource Council.

The Musselshell-Judith Rural Water Project is a plan to supply eight incorporated Central Montana towns with water drawn from three to five wells west of Garneill. The project will draw from the Madison Aquifer, 3,700 feet below ground, with service areas as far away as parts of Musselshell, Petroleum and Yellowstone counties.

Roger Lohrer represented the Central Montana Resource Council at this week’s meeting, and explained his presentation was to maintain awareness about the project. He acknowledged the project’s organizer, the Central Montana Regional Water Authority, hosted two informational meetings. Lohrer, however, felt concerns or questions were not well addressed, and meetings’ floods of facts were a “snow job.”

“They just buried us in chemistry, geology, and hydrology, and I don’t think there was one person in ten who understood what he was talking about,” he said.

The Resource Council had concerns about the project’s water source, according to Lohrer. The group felt the Madison Aquifer’s recharge rate, as well as the possibility of overdrawing it, were two areas meriting more study.

Lohrer added that while the Resource Council wants to protect water resources, they were not against residents having access to them.

“We’re not opposed to anyone having good water,” he said. “I think it’s a right, just like healthcare is a right. We’re concerned about monitoring, and there’s so little known about the Madison Aquifer. There is no data, really.”

Progress to date
Bob Church, project manager and a principal engineer at Great West Engineering in Helena, said the Regional Water Authority was careful about drawing from the aquifer.

“With the information we’ve gathered to this point, we don’t have any concerns that we’re going to impact Big Spring or any of those other Madison-Aquifer resources,” he said.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation awarded water rights for the project in 2013. Church explained the process evaluated technical data, existing water rights and the water available. Approval meant the DNRC thought the project would not unduly impact other water users.

Church and the Authority also conducted a well-pumping test to measure the affect on wells from the same source. After two 10-day periods of pumping 575 gallons per minute, the results showed no changes in the other wells.

The Water Authority is also continuing to address concerns, according to Church. The group secured roughly $450,000 in state funding for the Judith Basin Water Resource Study.

Already six months in, the study is designed to monitor water levels in wells drawing from the Madison Aquifer and the Kootenai Aquifer over 800 feet above it, as well as flow rates at Big Spring and weather data near the well site.

“At the end of the three-year period, we’re going to take this data, and we’re going to run a water balance on the Madison’s recharge, to make a more direct calculation of how much recharge there is in the Madison,” Church said.

He added the project itself, from laying pipeline to actual service, is years away. The Water Authority has followed the federal government’s planning process, marking it as “technically and financially feasible.”

The next steps, authorization and appropriation, happen in Congress. Church explained the first allowed for funding, and the second actually awarded it by putting the project in the national budget. Both have to happen before construction is a consideration.

Water Authority member and Project Administrator Monty Sealey said for now, the group is in a holding pattern.

“We’ve got a request into Congress to have the project authorized,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to predict what and when Congress will act on certain things.”

The Authority feels it’s made progress, though, according to Sealey.

“There’s two projects out of 20 that started this [planning] process and made it through there,” he said. “We’re one of the two.”

For now, Church and Great West Engineering are working on the design, land acquisition and environmental for the first of five phases, aiming to be ready the moment funding is.

Church estimates, with proper authorization and appropriation by the federal government, the project will start the Phase 1 pipeline from the well to Harlowton within the next two years. The end is further off.

“[Similar projects] were 10-15 years into it before they actually built anything,” he said. “Even though we would like it to go a lot quicker, this is what it’s taken other projects.”



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