By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A group working to rebuild the system that supplies water to the Milk River will meet next Wednesday in Chinook, while the draft legislation it prepared is receiving an initial review in Congress.
The working group on Wednesday will finalize details about its membership and procedures and focus on updates of the project. The public is welcome, and time is set for public comment.
"We kind of got down to business last time on that legislation," said Paul Azevedo of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "Now we're kind of firming things up so we can get to the meat and potatoes kind of things."
The St. Mary Project working group, chaired by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, drafted legislation requesting $9.5 million, including $4.5 million to study the benefits of the system and $5 million to create a reserve fund to repair the system if it fails while the study is being done.
Azevedo, the state coordinator for the St. Mary Project, said the working group realizes it may not receive the full funding request. The biggest challenge will probably be getting the entire $5 million requested for the repair reserve fund, he said.
"We feel it's very crucial that it's there," he added.
The irrigators who use the water diverted by the system, which was authorized as an irrigation project, are now fully responsible for paying for the repair and maintenance of the system in the year the work is done. If Congress approves the reserve fund, the irrigators wouldn't have to pay for emergency repairs.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates the cost of rebuilding the nearly 100-year-old system at $100 million.
A purpose of the study is to determine what benefits the diversion provides in addition to supplying irrigation water, which could spread the cost of rebuilding the system to funding sources besides the irrigators.
Havre, Chinook and Harlem use water from the Milk River for municipal water. The diversion also provides water for wildlife habitat and recreation on the river and at Fresno Reservoir west of Havre and Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta.
The diversion supplies up to 70 percent of the water in the river in an average year. In the drought year of 2001, it supplied more than 90 percent of the water in the river.
Brad Keena, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said today that Rehberg supports the study and wants to "get this rolling."
"He is definitely behind this," Keena said.
The draft is under review by the bipartisan legislative counsel in the House of Representatives, Keena said. He added that the legislative counsel review is mostly a formality.
J.P. Donovan, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said the draft also is under review in the Senate.
"It's now being run through a couple of processes in the Senate to get the language better tailored to the form of a federal law," Donovan said.
He added that Burns supports the study and the repair of the diversion.
"Something needs to be done," Donovan said.
Barrett Kaiser, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the federal process makes it very difficult to attach stipulations to the use of the money. The draft legislation makes some stipulations, such as how much of the appropriation the Bureau of Reclamation could use for administrative costs.
Baucus intends to request the $9.5 million appropriation, and has staff members working with representatives of the working group to find ways to make sure the money is used as effectively as possible, Kaiser said.
"Max does feel very strongly that the irrigators shouldn't be the only ones who bear the burden," Kaiser said.
The St. Mary Diversion was one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build. The bureau was created in 1902 and the diversion was authorized in 1903.
Located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the diversion transfers water stored in Lake Sherburne through about 30 miles of steel siphons, canals and concrete drop structures into the North Fork of the Milk River. It then flows into Canada and returns to Montana about 215 miles later.
The working group meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Wednesday in the Chinook Motor Inn.
On the Net: Lt. Gov.'s St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group: www.dnrc.state.mt.us/stmarycover.htm