By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns said getting congressional approval for money to repair the St. Mary Diversion is a priority.
"We're going to have to rebuild this whole thing," he said Friday in Havre, after flying over the diversion with Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs.
After viewing the aging structure from the air, Burns stopped in Havre and Glasgow to talk to people about the plan to repair it.
Ohs co-chairs a working group formed to secure funding to rebuild the nearly 100-year-old project, which supplies most of the water in the Milk River each year. The working group has a request before Congress for $9.5 million to pay for a study of the diversion and create a $5 million repair fund.
The working group will hold its next meeting Wednesday in Glasgow.
The Milk River Project's 1903 authorization requires irrigators in the Milk River Valley to pay for all maintenance and repair of the diversion. The rehabilitation of the diversion is estimated at $100 million.
Burns said Friday's trip was the first time he's inspected the diversion from the air, and the first time he has had someone with Ohs' understanding of the system to point out key problems.
Randy Reed, co-chair of the working group, told Burns during his Havre stopover that the $5 million reserve is crucial. If a key part of the diversion failed, the Milk River Valley would lose most of its water. Havre, Chinook, Harlem, and Fort Belknap Agency use the Milk for their water supply.
"This is the problem in the next few years - it could be this year - that could jeopardize the water supply," Reed said.
Burns, who chairs the Interior and Related Agencies subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he can't say how much Congress would appropriate for the diversion.
"Anybody who can forecast that is a fool or a newcomer," he said.
He said the Interior subcommittee will take a close look at the funding request.
"It will be a high priority, very high," Burns said.
Ohs said the working group Wednesday will look at a proposal by the engineering firm of Thomas Dean & Hoskins of Great Falls to do a preliminary study of rebuilding the diversion. The study would be in preparation for the main study the congressional appropriation would fund.
The working group could approve the firm's proposal on Wednesday, Ohs said.
The state allocated $100,000 for the preliminary study, with an equal match from local sources required. Local governments and organizations including the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited have made the match.
The diversion was one of the first projects the federal Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after it was created in 1902. Congress authorized the project to provide water for irrigation in the Milk River Valley.
Most of the diversion, which includes 29 miles of canals, two sets of metal siphons and concrete drop structures, was built between 1906 and 1921.
The working group's meeting is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Glasgow Elks Lodge.