By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The group working to find ways to repair the system that provides much of the water in the Milk River needs to come up with $45,000 to fund a preliminary study of the system.
Gov. Judy Martz in March approved spending $100,000 from the state Emergency Environmental Contingency Fund for the preliminary study, contingent upon a $100,000 match from other sources.
John Tubbs, chief of the Resources Development Bureau of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the Milk River Board of Control, which oversees the operation of the irrigation districts on the Milk River, has pledged $50,000 and the state chapter of Walleyes Unlimited has pledged $5,000 toward the match.
Tubbs said the working group discussed ways to raise at least another $45,000 when it met in Glasgow on Wednesday.
"We're hoping to raise more than $100,000," Tubbs said. "(The preliminary study) gets us a jump start."
Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs in November created the working group to find ways to fund repairing the St. Mary Diversion, a series of structures on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation that sends water from Lake Sherburne to the Milk River. Some of structures are 98 years old and the system is in disrepair. The diversion supplies up to 70 percent of the water in the river in an average year, and supplied 95 percent of the water in the drought year of 2001. The Milk River often dried up during summers before the diversion was built.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the diversion, estimated in 2002 that rehabilitating it would cost about $100 million.
Tubbs said the working group plans to seek funds from other groups that are impacted by the diversion, including the cities of Havre, Chinook and Harlem, which get their municipal water from the Milk River, and from five counties: Glacier County, where the diversion is located, and Hill, Blaine, Phillips and Valley counties, where irrigators use the water.
Tubbs said the working group next month will start looking at qualifications of engineering firms to do the preliminary study. The firm hired will look at the facility when it is transporting water, "if we don't get droughted out," he said, and again when it is shut down after the irrigation season. The firm also will review information the Bureau of Reclamation has on the diversion, and in January will recommend the best way to use the $3 million the working group has requested from Congress for a more in-depth study.
Glacier County has requested $500,000 in Treasure State Endowment Program funds to build a new bridge near an old bridge that also serves as a support for the diversion siphons. The traffic on the bridge, built in 1915, is fairly high in the summer, adding to the wear caused by water running through the siphons., Tubbs said.
The bridge is famous, he added. An oversized tire was wrapped around the siphon so water leaking from the siphon would spray away from the bridge, rather than onto traffic.
"It's the icon photo for the project with the tire on the siphon," Tubbs said.
The working group in February drafted a proposal for Congress to appropriate $9.5 million for the in-depth study and a reserve for emergency repairs to the diversion if needed. The authorization for the project currently requires irrigators who use the water to pay for all maintenance and repairs on the diversion in the year work is done.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said the legislative counsel is reviewing the bill for the House. Rehberg wants to move the legislation forward as quickly as possible, spokesman Brad Keena said.
"We can't expect the (irrigators) to come up with the money to make this happen," Keena said.
Keena said he is confident the legislation will past muster with minor changes, but it is taking longer than expected to prepare it.
He said the issue is complicated by the fact that it involves a sovereign Indian nation as well as a water rights treaty with Canada. Also, the congressional authorization for the original construction will have to be changed so the irrigators don't have to pay the entire cost of the project.
"In short, it's taking the legislation, the draft legislation that came from the state, (and) running it through a lot of complicated hoops, but we'll get there," Keena said. "The goal remains the same. The issues are not irresolvable, they're just complicated."
Keena said Rehberg wants to be sure there won't be any issues open to objections or legal challenges.
The federal legislation would provide $3 million to study the the benefits the diversion provides to the economy, recreation and wildlife habitat, and determine the appropriate sharing of costs for repair as well as operation and maintenance. It would study the cost of repairing the facility, and also determine the ability of people who use the water to pay for the diversion's repair.
Another $1.5 million is requested to study environmental impacts of the diversion and irrigation needs on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
On the Net: St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group: www.dnrc.state.mt.us/stmarycover.htm