By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A group that wants to rebuild the system that diverts water to the Milk River will meet Wednesday to strategize about how to proceed with the project.
The working group, headed by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, has discussed asking Congress to fund a study about who benefits from the St. Mary Diversion. That focus may change as a result of the meeting, said Paul Azevedo of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, who is the state coordinator for the St. Mary rehabilitation project.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg will attend the meeting, which is open to the public. Rehberg is scheduled to fly from the Great Falls meeting to the diversion, his spokesman, Brad Keena, said today.
Azevedo said it is important that many people attend the meeting to show their support for rebuilding the diversion.
"Nothing gets done if it doesn't get pushed from the bottom," he said.
Ralph Anderson, who irrigates hayland east of Havre Milk River water, said he hopes people understand how important the project is.
"I'd like to have everybody who has anything to do with the Milk River know about it," Anderson said. "I'd like to see the information get out to the people so they know it affects them, too."
Keena said Rehberg is very interested in rebuilding the diversion.
"He is intrigued by the idea of getting this (benefits) study done," Keena said.
The project, spearheaded by Ohs, is to rebuild a system that was approved for construction by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago. It was one of the bureau's first projects after it was formed in 1902. It consists of a series of dams, canals and pipes that divert water from Lake Sherburne to the Milk River.
The diversion supplies half the water in the river in an average year. In a drought year, it often supplies more than 90 percent of the water in the river.
Irrigators who use the water are responsible for paying for the use, maintenance and repairs of the system, but have not been able to fully fund needed repairs as the system has deteriorated.
Between 1999 and 2003, the eight irrigation districts on the Milk River contributed $200,000 and federal grants provided $400,000 to make repairs, often characterized as Band-Aids, that have kept the system operating.
Representatives of the Bureau of Reclamation, DNRC and irrigators say most of the diversion system is in dire need of repair, with a cost of up to $125 million.
The diversion was authorized for the sole purpose of providing water for irrigation, which is something the working group wants re-examined.
"Times have changed in 100 years," Azevedo said.
The river now provides water for municipal use by Havre, Chinook and Harlem and serves as a source of recreation on the river and on Fresno Reservoir west of Havre and Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta.
The working group, established at a meeting in Havre in November, originally planned to request funding for a feasibility study. Azevedo said that focus has shifted to requesting funding for a study the benefits the diversion provides.
He said the working group hopes to have legislation drafted to request that funding by the end of February.
Azevedo said if the study shows that municipalities, recreation, the environment, and fish and wildlife benefit from the diversion as well as irrigators do, it will be easier to convince Congress to authorize money to rebuid the system.