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Families in northeastern Montana will have to wait a few more years for clean drinking water.

Congressional funding for the Assiniboine Sioux Rural Water Project has lagged since the project started, and every year it falls further behind schedule. The project was expected to be done by 2010, but planners are now saying it will be closer to 2015.

The project includes an intake on the Missouri River, a water treatment plant near Wolf Point and about 3,190 miles of pipeline. It will provide clean drinking water to some 30,000 residents who live on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and in the Dry Prairie Rural Water Authority, which extends north from the reservation boundary to the Canadian border and east to the North Dakota state line. The project will connect and replace 22 community water systems.

A decade ago, when the Assiniboine Sioux Rural Water Project was proposed, its price tag was about $193 million, but annual congressional appropriations haven't kept pace with inflation. Now, the cost is approaching $275 million.

Since the Assiniboine Sioux Rural Water Project was authorized in 2000, it has received an average of $7 million a year, while project managers have asked for an average of about $38 million a year. At the present funding rate, there's no way the project will be finished by 2010.

"2010 is just around the corner, so we'll probably have to go back for an extension," said Tom Escarcega, project manager.

Escarcega, tribal officials and other project organizers will ask Congress to approve another $31 million in 2009.

The intake system at the Missouri River was finished in 2004, and the water treatment plant, located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 13, is about 70 percent finished. If all the funding comes through, it will be enough to finish the treatment plant and get started laying pipe across the reservation, Escarcega said.

Even then, it could still be 2015 by the time families on the reservation have clean drinking water.

The Assiniboine Sioux Rural Water Project is one of three chronically underfunded water projects in Montana. The trio includes the Rocky Boy's North Central Montana Regional Water System and the St. Mary's Rehabilitation Project. When complete, the three projects will bring clean drinking water to about 77,000 people along the Montana Hi-Line. Altogether, the three projects will cost more than $500 million in federal funds.

The Fort Peck Reservation and the Hi-Line in general have some of the worst water quality in the nation.

Most groundwater wells have high mineral and bacteria levels that exceed national health standards. Escarcega said iron and sodium were the most common contaminants, and in some places, mineral levels exceed levels found in seawater. A study done at the start of the project suggested that as many as 84 percent of the wells in the area had nitrate levels exceeding the maximum contaminant levels for drinking water.

"People thought the deeper they drilled the better, but that wasn't so. It was bad for shallow and deep the same," Escarcega said.

Some residents purchased reverse-osmosis water treatment systems for drinking water, Escarcega said, but not everyone on the reservation could afford them.

When the project is finished, it will supply clean water to residents on the reservation and Dry Prairie no matter where they live, Escarcega said.

Water for the system comes from a 1888 tribal water right. It will pull about 12 million gallons of water a day from the Missouri River, where it flows at a rate of about 7 million acre-feet a day.

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"It will be like a drop in the bucket," Escarcega said.

Of the overall project funding, 71 percent will be used on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and about 29 percent will be used for Dry Prairie, said Escarcega. Funding for the Dry Prairie work is primarily federal but includes some state, county and local funding as well.

Escarcega said the war in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to the funding crunch at Capitol Hill, and many projects are suffering as prices of steel, pipe and concrete climb with inflation.

"What helps is if we get into the president's budget," Escarcega said.

In 2006, the project was included in the president's budget, and it received $16 million - the most the project had ever received in one year. The funding boosted progress, but was still was not as much as organizers requested. Last year, the project was earmarked for $9 million.

"We're hoping for at least $16 million this year, if not we'll be struggling again," Escarcega said.

Although most of the lobbying focus is on Montana delegates and House and Senate appropriations committees, Escarcega said he's hopeful that when President-elect Barak Obama takes office, the shift to a democratic administration will help the project along.

"We're looking for lots of cooperation," Escarcega said. "Hopefully the odds will be a little bit better for us. There are a lot of Democrats up here."

Contact Laura Tode at ltode@billingsgazette.com or 657-1392.

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