story by: Nikki Carlson
page designby: Stacy Mantle
CHESTER - Just 13 miles southwest of Chester, Kelly Christenot watches a jet skier skimming the water of Lake Elwell. His eyes then focus on a field of harvested wheat across the lake. Christenot, a winter and spring wheat farmer, can't help but wonder, why can't the local producers rake in the benefits of the available water?
Recreation is an attraction at Lake Elwell. However, there are about 45 producers in the "Heart of the Hi-Line" community of Chester who want Lake Elwell to be used for one of the primary reasons it was designed for - irrigation.
"What I do have a fear about is that if we don't use the water that somebody in Mississippi, Louisiana or Missouri or someplace else gets the water, and they just let it go down the river and it's gone," Christenot said. "Then nobody in Montana gets to use it. And it's our water."
Christenot and Ken Gagnon, co-chairmen of the Chester Irrigation Project, have been working on getting a working irrigation system in place for local producers. They were recently awarded a $100,000 grant through the renewable resource grant program of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. John Tubbs, DNRC chief of resource development, said the money will allow CIP to work with engineers to set up the project.
CIP's first grant was an irrigation development program grant for $15,000 in July 2003 through DNRC to get the program organized. Since then it's received another $10,000 to continue the work. Some of that money will pay for a tour this month for government officials to visit a successful irrigation system in Canada.
A $45,000 Growth Through Agriculture grant will pay for a study of the economic benefits of an irrigation system.
Christenot estimated that $50 million will be needed for a Chester area irrigation project. Half would come from the producers' pockets in order for pivots and feeder lines to be installed on their properties.
"We would like to get the federal government involved. But everything costs five times more than it should because they overbuild everything," Christenot said. "You have to get Congress to approve the project, and then you have to get Congress to fund the project. That's the hard part."
Sept. 20-21, Christenot and Gagnon will go to Taber, Alberta, for an agricultural tour. They've invited elected and state officials to go along. Christenot said the agenda will include visiting a dry bean processing facility in Taber; going through the Spitz sunflower seed plant in Bow Island, Alberta; sitting in on a meeting of the Taber irrigation district to discuss how its irrigation system is funded and what it has done to maintain it; visiting a vegetable farm west of Taber; and looking at the irrigation project that was established in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Christenot said CIP wants to give Montana officials a peek at the possibilities an irrigation system could bring to Chester-area producers. They chose Taber because of its overall success of establishing an irrigation system. Also, its climate is similar to north-central Montana's, and its irrigation system is similar to what CIP wants to develop.
"We want them to kind of get an idea as to what irrigation can do. We want to show them where the potential is. Pretty much anything they can grow there, we can grow here," Gagnon said. "We've got to try and show our legislators that that's what could happen in Montana."
CIP will look into getting more money through low-interest loans and grants. It's also going through proposals from engineering firms to project the costs of the project and determine where the best location for a pump site would be.
There are still a lot of unknowns, its advocates say, such as how large an area would be served.
"We're trying to get people educated and get funding to do some research on it," said Craig Henke, CIP advisory board member.
But CIP members have some pretty firm ideas. Gagnon said the irrigation system, including the water lines, would be enclosed underground to reduce evaporation, help with maintenance and limit liability.
The Tiber Dam was built across the Marias River in 1956 to produce a reservoir, Lake Elwell. According to the Bureau of Reclamation's Web site, Lake Elwell has a storage capacity of 1.36 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is equal to an acre of land covered with a foot of water.
CIPs wants to use about 40,000 acre-feet of that, and would have to contract with the Bureau of Reclamation to take water from Elwell.
Todd Dixon of the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the reservoir, said Lake Elwell is a multipurpose reservoir created for flood control, irrigation, recreation and habitat for wildlife.
Plans to use the Marias River water for widespread irrigation first surfaced in 1903, and a damsite near the Liberty-Hill county line was planned. Nothing was acted on until 1930 when local interest ran high due to drought.
Lenny Duberstein, head of the bureau's planning and project development office in Billings, said the lake hasn't been used for large-scale irrigation because of federal regulations and costs for an irrigation project.
Government regulations in the 1950s said each producers could only irrigate 160 acres with a federal irrigation project, according to Tubbs.
"They didn't do anything because producers owned thousands of acres of land," he said. "The constraints were nearly impossible."
The federal government's acreage limitation has since been increased to 940 acres, Tubbs said.
Years later, producers tried to devise their own plan without going through the federal government. But they ran into the problem of raising enough money for a project of that magnitude.
But seven or so years of drought in north-central Montana has rekindled interest in an irrigation project.
"It's been an extremely dry decade. Montana has lost four years of water in the past eight years of rainfall," he said. "I think the last wet year we had was in '97."
Christenot said he believes the Hi-Line can diversify its crops with more irrigation.
Elwell already provides limited irrigation for nearby producers.
Christenot works for Morkrid Farms Arrowhead about half a mile from Lake Elwell. Morkrid uses a sprinkler pivot with water from Elwell to irrigate silage corn, alfalfa, seed potatoes, barley, sudan grass and wheat.
"It's just a matter of having enough water. There's just miles and miles of nothing except wheat and barley," he said. "We have good soils. These soils will grow anything if we have water on them."
Henke grows peas, spring and winter wheat, barley and canola on his farm southeast of Chester, irrigating with Marias River water. He said trying to farm with little water is a tough scenario for a producer.
"You just lived everywhere on crop insurance," he said. "You had to cut your expenses to survive."
Specialty crops Christenot said could be grown with an irrigation system include: dry beans, corn, sweet peas, carrots, sudan grass and soybeans.
"We can probably grow about anything. It's just a matter of having enough water," he said. "We have to be willing to change and try to raise value-added products or raise feed crops, and be able to add value to our beef, our eggs, our chickens."
Henke said: "I think if we're going to survive in agriculture, we're going to have to survive in different markets."
With more diverse crops being grown, Christenot said more farm equipment would have to be used, strenghtening the local implement business.
"The larger the irrigated area is, the more industry or agricultural attraction the area will have," Gagnon said.
"It will get more money circulated ... not just through Chester, but this money will go all the way into Havre," Christenot added. "Eastern Montana is losing population, and you can blame it on anything. The thing is we're going to have to change."
Christenot and Gagnon said once the irrigation project gets on its feet, there would be room for expansion for other area producers. About 45 producers are interested right now.
But Christenot and Gagnon are not concentrating their efforts on identifying additional users until that time arrives.
"When they design this infrastructure, they're not going to design it for an extra 30,000 acres. We're only going to pump only as much water out of that lake as we have people signed up to take it," Gagnon said. "So we're not going to make a pump that will deliver 180,000 acre-feet just in case somebody else needs some water."
Christenot expects other producers to jump on the bandwagon in the future.
Duberstein said he's excited to see what happens.
"I think it will be a very good thing that could benefit everyone in the Hi-Line and in the Chester area," he said.
"It's a new day in Montana,'" Christenot said. "We have to use water. We have to irrigate and change our farming attitudes. That's the only way we're going to survive."