Havre Daily News
They're bringing in the big guns.
The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group has decided it will be necessary to hire an experienced Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to secure funding from the federal government.
The group also decided last week to add new voting and nonvoting members.
Working group members met with six lobbying firms on a trip to Washington last month and have narrowed the list down to three, interim executive director Larry Mires said. A firm is needed to assist in the complex process of wrangling money from Capitol Hill, he said. Montana's congressional delegation is already on board, he added.
"This is not to lobby Montana's congressional delegation, it's to work with our representatives," Mires said. "(The lobbyists) become a resource to help move this project forward. Our delegation's staff is working pretty hard, but their plates are full. This will enhance our chances of having this project corrected before we have a failure."
Working group co-chair Randy Reed said Montana's delegation is in a good position to help with the project.
"We have one House member, but he's positioned himself into some key subcommittees that are critical," Reed said. "Our senior senators are in key positions as well. We can make some things happen if we can overcome the obstacles and make some progress."
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has estimated the rehabilitation will cost $100 million. The working group is seeking a federal appropriation of $6.75 million, which will be used for engineering and environmental studies, a bridge replacement and vocational programs and irrigation projects on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The diversion was authorized by Congress in 1902 and brings water from the St. Mary River to the Milk River, which usually dried up during warm months before the irrigation project was constructed, Reed said. The river's augmented flow is used to irrigate more than 110,000 acres; bring drinking water to Havre, Chinook, Harlem, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and other municipalities; and is used for recreation.
In the 2005 legislative session, Montana legislators appropriated $12 million for the project. The funding included $10 million from a bond sale, to be used for construction costs and to match federal funding. The Legislature also provided funds for the hiring of an engineer and a hydrologist, preliminary studies, coulee repairs and state matching funds for a crucial bridge replacement project in Glacier County. The Bureau of Reclamation has identified the bridge over the St. Mary River as a top failure risk.
"That bridge is in critical condition," Mires said.
Hi-Line cities, counties, irrigators, residents and Walleyes Unlimited have donated an additional $108,000 to the effort.
At its meeting in Glasgow last week, the working group members voted to add a Glacier County commissioner as a voting member and create an ex-officio seat for the Fort Belknap irrigators.
On their trip to Washington, D.C., working group members met with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys and Deputy Commissioner Mark Limbaugh to discuss the reauthorization of the canal system.
The diversion was one of the first five projects authorized by the bureau and has not been updated or expanded into a multipurpose project, Mires said. Keys classified the diversion as a unique situation, he said.
"They do recognize after our meetings with them that this is a unique project and a unique situation," Mires said. "If this thing does not go forward with a reauthorization or a revision, we will bankrupt agricultural interests in northern Montana."
Water contract holders along the Milk River have been responsible for the operating and maintenance costs of the diversion since it was built, a practice that cannot continue for long, Reed said. Those costs will double, from $500,000 to $1 million, between this year and next year, he said.
When the project was first authorized, the government only took into account the benefits for the irrigators and didn't include other benefits, such as flood control and recreation. A reauthorization would spread the cost of maintaining the diversion.
"The purpose of the project will still be irrigation, but more of the burden would be carried by the federal government and society rather than the contract holders," Reed said.
The Washington trip, along with a strategic planning retreat held in Lewistown in March, have refocused the working group's efforts, but there is still much to be done, Reed and Mires said.
The group will be looking for a permanent executive director to begin work in July. Mires said he hasn't decided if he would take the job if it were offered to him.
Reed said progress is being made.
"We've built a momentum, and we just need to keep it on task," he said. "We've got a lot of tasks before us in the next couple of months. We need to work through them so we can get this project under way as soon as possible."