Posted 2/06/13 (Wed)
By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer
The Western Area Water Supply Authority (WAWSA) was created as a result of the last North Dakota Legislative Assembly and has made tremendous progress since then, upgrading the water supply of many western North Dakotan communities as well as the Williston Water Treatment facility. However, the approval of just one House bill in this 63rd Legislative Assembly could threaten all that WAWSA has accomplished.
“There are three bills that, if approved, will have a negative impact on WAWSA,” states Denton Zubke, president of WAWSA. “Each bill has components that either put us under more of the State Water Commission’s oversight, or will put our entire organization under total State Water Commission control.”
What could the bills contain that would be so detrimental to what WAWSA has accomplished? According to Zubke, House Bill 2233, House Bill 2359 and House Bill 2373 all contain components that will force WAWSA to give up local control of its infrastructure and give up the ability to set its own water rates as well as actually having to turn over some of its infrastructure to the state.
WAWSA was developed from member representatives from the city of Williston, the McKenzie County Rural Water District, the Williams Rural Water District, the R&T Water Supply Commerce Authority, and the Burke-Divide-Williams Water System Association.
In testimony that Jaret Wirtz, WAWSA executive director, gave to the North Dakota State Legislature on Jan. 16, he stated that WAWSA members have come together in a way that no other regional water entities have. “The collaborative process has been, in one word, amazing.”
“It makes no sense when you look at what has been accomplished and the few problems we have had over the last few years,” states Zubke. “This is a great story and a remarkable project with a huge amount of accomplishment. The approval of these bills can only diminish the project.”
Zubke feels that these three bills are being pushed through the legislative assembly by outside detractors who are either jealous of the project and the progress that has been made, or are trying to capitalize on the use of public resources for private interests, and the outcome of even one of these bills passing will have tremendous repercussions to western North Dakota.
“Every entity has, in good faith, turned over its infrastructures to WAWSA, and now all that would come under the control of the State Water Commission,” states Zubke. “We feel that we operated in good faith when we put WAWSA together and we are now questioning whether the state legislative body is operating in good faith.”
While the Water Authority members are fearful of the possible repercussions House Bills 2233, 2373 and 2359 could produce if they are adopted, they are equally fearful of the legislative assembly not accepting House Bill 1140 and House Bill 1020.
According to Wirtz, in the 62nd Legislative Assembly, $150 million was requested to initiate the Western Area Water Supply Authority project that has brought Missouri River water into the homes of residents in the rural areas and 10 cities surrounding Williston. Out of what was requested, $110 million was given in loans to WAWSA, with the understanding that the Water Authority would be back to ask for the rest of the money in the next legislative session.
“The legislative assembly gave us the $110 million and said to come back next time for the rest,” states Wirtz.
Only this time, due to the unanticipated growth that western North Dakota has experienced since the last legislative body met, WAWSA is back for the rest of their money. And then some.
“We are in the position of having to ask for more because of all the growth that we have dealt with since 2010,” Wirtz states. “We are actually asking for emergency funding because the demands have come faster than we could have anticipated.”
Wirtz states that House Bills 1140 and 1020 are those requests for the rest of the $150 million WAWSA initially asked for, as well as that extra funding WAWSA needs to meet the infrastructure needs of an oil-impacted and growing population.
“The additional funding will help us build to the Tobacco Gardens area, complete the Alexander area project, add on around rural Watford City and begin a project in the Squaw Gap area,” states Wirtz. “We are also having to upgrade the Williston Water Treatment plant sooner than anticipated, which the additional funding would also help us do.”
WAWSA is asking, in House Bill 1140, for the remaining requested $40 million in loans from the state of North Dakota, as well as an additional $40 million in loans and $39 million in grants from the state, through House Bill 1020.
At the end of the day, if both bills are approved, WAWSA will owe the state of North Dakota $190 million in loans, $110 million from last session and $80 million from this session, and would receive $39 million in grants.
Both Zubke and Wirtz would like to get the word out about these five bills, because they want people to get involved.
“We need anyone’s support in contacting their legislative representatives,” states Zubke. “We need people to come out in support of the WAWSA project, as well as support for maintaining its local control.”