City may pay $10 million for water rightsBy RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff WriterCity government may consider spending up to $10 million to buy new water rights for future city use.The City Commission at a work session Tuesday generally agreed to consider the idea, proposed by city fiscal officer Coleen Balzarini and David Schmidt, a water rights consultant from Helena.Balzarini said if the city agreed to purchase the water rights, the "worst-case" effect on city water customers would be a total annual rate increase of 10 percent. The city decided about a year ago to raise water rates by 5 percent per year to improve the city's water system; a water rights purchase might increase city water rates an additional 5 percent through 2019. City growth could moderate such an increase, she said.
The plan drew some immediate questions from residents, including Ron Gessaman of Great Falls. "That's a lot of money," Gessaman said.
Schmidt said buying water rights is not the only thing commissioners can do to keep the city supplied with water. He said the city can dig individual wells to keep its parks watered, and new developers if land could be charged a water-rights fee, such as a $6,000 per acre-foot fee charged to developers in Bozeman.
Great Falls could charge a different amount than Bozeman, or not levy the fee, he said. "I think they're in a bigger pickle than the city of Great Falls," Schmidt said of Bozeman.Earlier, Schmidt had recommended, and the city agreed, to abandon some of the city's water claims from the time of Paris Gibson, who founded the city of Great Falls in 1884. Schmidt said the city had not been using the water, so the state Water Court would not have looked kindly upon the city claiming water Great Falls had not been using.
Kathleen Gessaman of Great Falls disagreed at a later City Commission meeting. "I think we'd have an excellent chance in the Water Court," she said. The alternative of buying water rights is "awfully expensive," she added.Schmidt said he would not get directly involved in a city of Great Falls purchase of water rights from the owner because his firm represents the owner, an agricultural user.
Commissioners may take up the issue of a water rights purchase this fall. Tuesday night, they disputed the notion that the city could successfully retain rights to water the city had not used.
"If you haven't used it, you don't have it," City Commissioner John Rosenbaum said. He added jokingly, "the only thing we haven't addressed in our water rights is evaporation."Commissioner Bill Bronson said some of the city's critics appeared to be trying to say Montana's cities should receive special treatment for their claims to water. "It would totally undo 160 years of water law in the American West," Bronson said. He cited a decision, made by a Montana water master three years ago dealing with the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River, that flatly said Montana municipalities are not exempt from state water laws.
"I have total confidence in our consultant on water issues," Commissioner Bill Beecher said.
Perhaps the following correspondence from the Department Of The Army, Corps Of Engineers, dated July 2008 and April 2008 may have something to do with the urgency the water consultant, Coleen Balzarini and some of the commissioners have with regard to the city buying $10 million worth of water rights: