By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A special working group has sent Montana's congressional delegation a draft request for $4.5 million to study who benefits from the St. Mary Diversion to the Milk River and who should pay for its reconstruction.
The draft also asks for $5 million to cover any emergency repairs to the diversion while the study is being done.
"We're actually drafting legislation, so this thing is moving," said Randy Reed, chair of the Milk River Project Development Association.
Reed is a member of a working group created by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs to study what can be done to rebuild the St. Mary Diversion, originally authorized in 1902 to divert water to the Milk River for irrigation.
The diversion usually provides 50 percent of the water in the Milk River, and more than 90 percent in drought years. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the project, estimates it is in need of $100 million in repairs.
While the purpose of the project is to provide irrigation water, Havre, Chinook and Harlem also have contracts to take water from the river for municipal use. Recreationalists also benefit, particularly at Fresno Reservoir west of Havre and Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta, and the Milk is a source of wildlife habitat.
A diversion dam on the St. Mary River diverts water stored in Lake Sherburne through a series of siphons, canals and five concrete drop structures into the Milk River. It then flows into Canada and returns to Montana about 200 miles later.
The draft of legislation completed by the working group last week requests money to study the project and its benefits.
A total of $3 million of the $4.5 million would be used for three purposes: The study would examine economic benefits of the diversion, including benefits to 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 work with the Blackfeet Tribe to study and address environmental impacts of the diversion on the reservation, and future needs on the Blackfeet for irrigation water.
Another $5 million is requested to make emergency repairs as needed.
Brad Keena, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today that once Rehberg has an opportunity to review the draft, he will decide whether to support it in its current form.
"It's possible he would like the proposal and submit it. It's also possible he may see the need to amend it," Keena said. "The project study is high on his priorities."
Keena said Rehberg was returning today from Montana to Washington, D.C.
Reed said the part of the draft legislation requesting $5 million for emergency repairs is critical. If part of the structure fails, the Bureau of Reclamation could use that money to keep the water flowing.
"I like that part. I really like that part a whole lot," he said.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. and a member of the working group, said it's impossible to say how successful a request like the one from the working group will be. The emergency nature of the repairs should help it gain support, he said.
"If ever there was a need to act quickly there isn't a better poster child than this," he said. "We all know what happens if this fails. I think this is precisely the kind of project that will be met with favor."
On the Net: St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group: www.dnrc.state.mt.us/stmarycover.htm