Havre Daily News
FORT BELKNAP - The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group had planned on using a sizable chunk of the $900,000 it received from the Montana Legislature last session to hire a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to help secure funding for the failing canal system.
The plans to use up to $100,000 for that purpose have been put on hold, at least temporarily.
Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who co-chairs the working group, told its members that they may have to reconsider because Gov. Brian Schweitzer has some concerns about the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for lobbyists.
"The governor has some very strong feelings about this issue," Bohlinger told the group Wednesday during its monthly meeting, held at Fort Belknap College. "Governor Schweitzer is not supportive of using state-appropriated money for the purpose of hiring lobbyists. He feels there is an ethical consideration."
Bohlinger added that a final decision hasn't been made but the governor is taking a hard look at the practice. He also said there would be no restrictions on the group spending money it has raised from other sources. The group raised about $108,000 last year from irrigators, municipalities, recreation groups and others. It hopes to raise $150,000 this year.
Jim Rector, who represents economic development interests in Valley County, said the working group should be allowed to use the state funds for lobbying.
"That's what we've intended to use these funds for all along," Rector said.
Group members have said that although Montana's congressional delegation is on board with the project, they want to hire a lobbying firm to help convince others on Capitol Hill that the project is essential.
Montana's congressional delegation recently took steps to assist the working group in its efforts.
Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus inserted language into a Senate bill to fund engineering and environmental studies, a bridge replacement and vocational programs and irrigation projects on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The group has requested $6.75 million, working group executive director Larry Mires said.
Bohlinger said he has asked former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot to use his friendship with President Bush to make the issue known in Washington, D.C. Racicot replied that he would do all he can, Bohlinger said.
Group members agreed to continue discussing the issue of paying for lobbyists at its next executive committee teleconference.
An engineering firm working on the project now estimates the cost of repairing the St. Mary Division at $120 million to $127 million. The federal government's previous estimate was $100 million.
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. 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.
The project was one of the first five authorized by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. When the diversion was first authorized, the government only took into account the benefits for the irrigators and didn't include other benefits, such as flood control, municipal water and recreation. A congressional reauthorization of the project sought by the working group would spread the cost of maintaining the diversion. The group is working to get the diversion reauthorized by January, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation bureau chief John Tubbs said after the meeting.
Rep. Denny Rehberg was able to insert crucial language into a House bill, Mires said. The wording is an initial step toward getting the authorization of the St. Mary Diversion changed from an irrigation project to a multi-use project, he said.
"That opened up the door to allow us to start the authorization process, or at least look at it," Mires said.
The aging canal system sprung a major leak in 2004, and a failure at one of the drop structures in 2002 resulted in it being closed for two months. A catastrophic failure would have economic and environmental impacts all along the Milk River basin and on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where all of the diversion's facilities are located.
The age of the system's facilities have reduced the flow through the canals from the design capacity of 850 cubic feet per second to 670 cfs.
Water contract holders along the Milk River have been responsible for the operating and maintenance costs of the diversion since it was built. Those costs are expected to double, from $500,000 to $1 million, between this year and next year.
Tubbs suggested using the $100,000 intended for lobbyists for other purposes. Half of the money could be diverted to help pay for engineering studies, he said.
Tubbs said the group had originally planned to pay Great Falls-based Thomas, Dean & Hoskins Engineering Consultants about $300,000 for various studies. The firm would conduct remaining engineering and environmental studies and prepare documents for National Environmental Policy Act compliance, along with preparing designs for construction.
TD&H has come back with an estimate of more than $470,000 for the engineering work. Tubbs said he wants to work with the engineers to identify areas where costs can be reduced.
Part of the process of environmental compliance involves public meetings, and Tubbs said he would like to hold a minimum of three meetings, at least one on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and others throughout the Milk River Basin, this summer.
Working group members also spoke of the importance of getting out to the affected communities and educating municipal officials and the public about the project. The group is working on brochures and presentations to aid in educating people about the diversion. Several members noted the importance of traveling to Billings and Great Falls to seek funding, because those communities receive economic benefits from Hi-Line residents who travel there.
Jay Weiner, an attorney with the state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, spoke to the group about the issues involved in Western water law. The Fort Belknap compact, which was ratified by the state Legislature in 2001 and is still awaiting congressional and final tribal approval, plays a part in the issues surrounding the diversion, Weiner said.
The compact recognizes that continued delivery of St. Mary water to the Milk River is essential, Weiner said. The agreement provides that if there is not enough water to satisfy the tribes' water right, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre may demand deliveries of water from Fresno Reservoir, Weiner said.
One of the things on tap for the working group's next meeting, to be held in Malta on June 22, is a discussion of the hiring of an executive director. Mires' contract expires July 31. Mires said he would like to see the group come to a decision by early July.