Havre Daily News
FORT BELKNAP - The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group is exploring several options before it asks the federal government to assist irrigators with the cost of massive repairs to the diversion.
The working group will be asking Congress to change the authorization for the water system to recognize other benefits of the system and provide federal dollars for its repair. Right now, area irrigators are solely responsible for future repairs, which are estimated to exceed $120 million.
Working group members settled on three possibilities Tuesday during a meeting at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation:
Asking for the reauthorization of only the St. Mary Reserved Works, which includes the diversion facilities, Lake Sherburne and Fresno and Nelson reservoirs;
Authorizing the entire Milk River Project, which includes the St. Mary facilities along with all of the irrigation districts in the basin;
Asking Congress to make the entire project a part of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, which would provide additional options for repayment of the cost of repairs.
Larry Mires, the group's executive director, said the working group will seek reauthorization for the repairs from Congress soon, but has no timeline for the request.
When Congress first authorized the diversion in 1902, it was designated an irrigation system. Under that agreement, any repairs to the now almost century-old water system, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, must be paid for by the contract holders, mostly the owners of 820 irrigated farms covering more than 110,000 acres along the Milk River.
The diversion supplies drinking water to Havre, Chinook and other communities by supplementing the Milk River, which typically dried up in summer before the diversion was built.
The working group will ask Congress to consider other benefits provided by the system. Those include flood control, municipal and industrial water supply, renewable energy resources, recreation and benefits to the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations.
Working group members have already met to brainstorm possibilities with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials, who will eventually draft a document to present to Congress. Another meeting is set for next month.
Mires said today the group is looking at the different possibilities in order to create a draft document, which can then be discussed by the various parties in the Milk River Basin who have an interest in the project. The working group is still very early in the authorization process, and there are many questions to be answered, he said.
By asking Congress to authorize the entire Milk River Project, the working group could include a request for federal dollars to address various infrastructure problems within irrigation districts throughout the basin.
Or it may not, he said.
“Right now, what we have is a lot of speculation,” Mires said. “We're in the very beginning phases of dealing with authorization.”
Another possibility, the Pick-Sloan program, was created by Congress in 1944 to develop the Missouri River Basin, taking into account barge traffic, irrigation, hydropower generation and other benefits, Bureau of Reclamation business resources manager Jamie Macartney said today.
If Congress approved a request to include the Milk River Project in the Pick-Sloan program, there may be additional possibilities for repayment of the repair costs on the St. Mary diversion, he said.
Mires remains positive that a solution can be found that will benefit the various interests along the river.
“I just see this as a huge opportunity for Montana and the Milk River Basin to do something progressive that benefits everybody up and down the river,” he said.
The working group has succeeded in garnering national attention for the St. Mary diversion, Mires said. The problems associated with the system are representative of the problems associated with aging water supply infrastructure across the West, he said.
Mires and others associated with the project will attend a number of national meetings on water issues in the coming months to keep the project's profile high.