Havre Daily News
The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group has begun the complex process of convincing Congress that the series of siphons and canals that keeps the Milk River flowing is much more than an irrigation project.
If Congress recognizes the project for its benefits to recreation, wildlife and flood control, that could mean significant federal dollars and a broader sharing of costs for the aging system's reconstruction.
Working group members met in Havre on Wednesday to discuss the reauthorization of the project, which will require a vote by Congress.
Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who co-chairs the advisory panel to the governor, last month sent letters to Montana's congressional delegation, asking it to formally request that the federal Bureau of Reclamation begin work on the new agreement.
When the project was first authorized in 1902, it was designated an irrigation system. Under that agreement, any repairs to the almost century-old water diversion system 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.
"Reclamation can go and fix these facilities, as long as irrigators picked up the tab," Department of Natural Resources and Conservation bureau chief John Tubbs noted at Wednesday's meeting.
That tab is estimated to exceed $128 million.
Because catastrophic failure of the system would also deprive Milk River communities like Havre, Chinook and Harlem of drinking water, and affect recreationists and others, the group wants the federal government to pick up a large part of the tab.
In order to convince Congress to reauthorize the project - and contribute significant dollars toward the rehabilitation - the final document must include several key provisions, Tubbs said:
The federal government can't be asked to pick up the entire bill. Money must come from the state and local government and organizations.
Irrigators' interests must be protected.
The project must benefit the Blackfeet Nation.
Water right allocations won't be affected.
The Bureau of Reclamation must work with the state and the tribe through cooperative agreements. Tubbs said cost sharing with the federal government must be ironed out.
"How can we make this affordable to rehabilitate these facilities?" he said.
If the Bureau of Reclamation were to start work on the facility tomorrow, it would cost irrigators $63.38 per acre per year for 40 years to pay off the costs of reconstruction.
The bureau has a draft study that analyzes other benefits of the system. The study is going through a process of internal reviews, but it could mean the federal government would pay about 32 percent of the rehabilitation costs.
Under that formula, the cost of rehabilitation is "still unaffordable" for irrigators, Tubbs said. It would be about $43.10 per acre per year for four decades.
If the federal government picked up 80 percent of the tab and state and local contract holders split the remaining 20 percent, the cost to irrigators would be a much more affordable $4.31 per acre per year, Tubbs said.
He encouraged working group members to play with the numbers in the coming month and bring suggestions to next month's meeting.
"I don't think I know all of the ways to skin this cat, but I do know you guys are the ones that are going to have to live with it," Tubbs said.
There are many issues to discuss over the coming months, including quantifying potential benefits to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Tubbs said. Hydropower is a possibility, but "we know there are other benefits," he added.
A primary issue is protecting the system's use as an irrigation project. Tubbs said he has talked to officials in California who have been through similar processes and inadvertently turned irrigation systems into recreation or wildlife projects. That's not the working group's goal, Tubbs said.
Working group member Steven Page, an irrigator, pointed out that the irrigation system has made other benefits possible.
"Irrigation is responsible for a great deal of fish and wildlife benefits, and we have to remember that," he said.
The group is considering working with two national organizations to help make its case with Congress. The National Water Resources Association and the Family Farm Alliance have a history with working in a bipartisanship manner in Washington, D.C., working group interim executive director Larry Mires said.
"Politically, it's about as neutral as we can get," Mires said. "Both of these groups have all of the expertise that you could ask for. We need some help in Washington. We need to find a way to be successful and keep this project moving forward."
Officials from both organizations will visit the St. Mary Diversion in September and attend the working group's next meeting.
"We could brainstorm and bounce ideas off these guys," Tubbs said. "I'm hoping they can be our litmus test for national acceptability, and you guys can be our test for local acceptability."
Tubbs encouraged working group members to go talk to the people they represent and bring ideas back to the table.
"I hope that neighbors talk to neighbors and irrigators talk to irrigators about how serious we are and how significant this is to the future of this state," Tubbs said. "We're getting to the point where we need to make very important decisions.
"The bottom line, I think, to Milk River irrigators and basin residents is that we need affordable water and an adequate supply."
The working group also heard from DNRC's Rich Moy, who is working with an International Joint Commission task force to investigate how Milk and St. Mary waters are allocated to the U.S. and Canada under a 1921 order. The group is working toward a tentative agreement that Moy called a "win-win" for both countries. The agreement is still in the early stages and hinges on whether Alberta decides to move forward with a planned dam on the Milk River, Moy said.
"The proposal would allow both countries to use more of their entitlement under the 1921 IJC order," Moy said.
If Alberta elects to build a reservoir on the Milk River, the task force will have to go back to square one, Moy said.
The working group decided to continue using Mires as an interim executive director. Mires, the executive director of Two Rivers Economic Growth in Glasgow, has logged 15,600 minutes on his cell phone, traveled 12,000 miles and spent 55 days away from home since taking the position with the working group in February.
Mires will continue working with the group for the next six months. He is only paid for his expenses.
The group also decided to utilize one employee of Bear Paw Development Corp. as an administrative assistant.
Walleyes Unlimited Fresno chapter president Larry Martinson presented the working group with a $5,000 donation.
"It's because of the hard work of our members and the generosity of our donors," Martinson said. "We all appreciate the work you're doing for us."
The next meeting of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group is Sept. 28 in Great Falls.