Blackfeet to build water system

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BROWNING, Mont. ? A new set of state grants will help this Blackfeet Indian Reservation community build a much-needed municipal water system, and none too soon for residents tired of unsightly tap water that often runs black.

According to Mayor Willie Morris Jr., the Montana Department of Commerce recently approved a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to help pay for construction. Another $500,000 grant has been awarded through Montana's Treasure State Endowment program. That's on top of $1 million allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development two years ago.

The money, along with anticipated funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Agency, should allow the town to move ahead with plans to pump fresh water from Lower Two Medicine Reservoir, just outside Glacier National Park, run it through a new filtration plant and move it about 14 miles to Browning. But first, a shorter delivery line will be laid from the lake to the nearby community of East Glacier Park, which is also experiencing supply problems.

The project is a joint endeavor of the town of Browning, the Blackfeet Tribal Housing Authority, the federal Indian Health Service and the East Glacier Water and Sewer District. If all goes well with funding for the $11.5 million renovation, Browning could have a sparkling new water system in three years, Morris says. And once the project is finished, the community should be in good shape for decades.

"We should be OK for 50 years unless we get a population boom in town," the mayor explained.

While health officials say Browning's water is safe, many people won't drink it. The discoloration, which stains clothes, sinks and tubs, is caused when naturally occurring iron and manganese in nearby well water is mixed with chlorine. An ongoing series of stop-gap repairs to the town's crumbling delivery system helps keep the material suspended in storage tanks and lines.

"We still pass all of our tests," Morris said. "It's still drinkable. It's still healthy. It's just that it's an inconvenience."

Civic leaders say the town's water problems, which include less-than-adequate flows, are driving away business and squelching growth. Prolonged drought has added to the challenges of keeping the community served, but Morris said an abundance of late-winter precipitation and a continuing resolve by area residents to conserve water should allow the town to limp through another year at least.

"Things were looking pretty grim before we got the last few storms," Morris said. "We believe we can make it now, but we're still expecting conservation from residents."

The mayor says a typical family of four in the United States uses about 150 gallons of water a day. In Browning, where water has been in short supply for years, a typical household of four uses only about 77 gallons a day.

"We probably have some of the most educated consumers around," he said. "They realize we have to save water. If we can keep all our equipment running, we really should be OK for the summer," when peak consumption occurs.

With potable water in short supply, some housing and other building projects have been put on hold. Town leaders also worry that the current system may be unable to produce enough water to fight a major fire, especially when emergency repair work shuts flows down for hours at a time.

Last year, Browning residents had to cope with restrictions designed to keep usage at a minimum because only about 750 gallons a minute was available for the entire town. Ideally, about 2,000 gallons a minute is needed, Morris says. One consolation is that the town's water rates are among the cheapest in the nation. But costs will undoubtedly increase once the new system is completed. At this point, no one knows how much.