Havre Daily News
Irrigators along the Milk River may soon be getting a helping hand - in the form of federal dollars - to pay for the operating and maintenance costs for the St. Mary Diversion, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said Tuesday.
Irrigators have been responsible for the vast majority of the operating and maintenance costs of the system, but a new study by the bureau shows that the diversion creates other benefits for north-central Montana, such as recreation and flood control.
The diversion brings water from the St. Mary River to the Milk River, keeping it flowing year-round.
The study is still going through a process of internal reviews, but it could mean the federal government will pay as much as 30 percent of those costs, leaving the irrigators to cover the remaining 70 percent, bureau business resources manager Jamie Macartney said Tuesday. "As this goes through review and additional information comes forward, there is a potential that the numbers can shift," Macartney said. "It is proceeding through the review process, and hopefully we'll see this in final form relatively soon."
At the request of U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., the House Resources Committee asked the Bureau of Reclamation to publicly release the study, St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group co-chair Randy Reed said Monday.
In addition, the process to reauthorize the project - which would likely mean significant federal dollars and a broader sharing of costs for reconstruction of the aging system - has begun. The working group has asked Montana's congressional delegation to forward a request to the Bureau of Reclamation for reauthorization.
The original authorization by Congress for the project in 1902 designated it as an irrigation project and said all costs of maintenance and repair would be paid for by the water contract holders.
Working group members hope the reauthorization will spread costs of rebuilding the diversion system among other entities, including the federal government.
The head of the bureau expressed support for the effort to reauthorize the diversion at the House Resources Committee hearing on July 19, Reed said. Reed testified before the committee as part of a panel of speakers addressing aging Bureau of Reclamation infrastructure across the Western United States.
Rehberg asked bureau commissioner John W. Keys III whether he supported reauthorizing the project, and Keys responded that he did, Reed said.
"It was really significant," Reed said. "It means they support rehabbing the project under new authorization."
He and other working group members hope to get the project reauthorized by January. Once the bureau drafts the reauthorization language, it will be reviewed by the working group, which serves as an advisory board to the governor.
Congressional hearings will follow, Reed said. He is unsure whether the reauthorization will go through the first time.
"We need to get it in the hopper," Reed said. "I don't know if we can get through it in one run. We won't know that until it all plays out."
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said the request will be reviewed during the congressional summer break.
"We're shooting to get it introduced in September," James Pendleton said.
He called the rehabilitation "critical."
"Thousands of people in north-central Montana rely on this for their drinking water and for agriculture," Pendleton said. "It would be devastating to the Hi-Line if it failed. We need to find a long-term, workable solution."
The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation intends to hire Minot, N.D.-based Houston Engineering to assist in reviewing the reauthorization drafted by the bureau, state Resource Development Bureau chief John Tubbs said Tuesday. On Houston's staff is Kent Heidt, who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation for 30 years doing contracts.
"When they provide a draft, we'll use Kent to look over the material the Bureau of Reclamation has provided and help us interpret the meaning of various sections of the bill," Tubbs said. "He's a very good fit."
Municipalities are again being asked to support the push to rehabilitate the diversion.
The Havre City Council decided Monday to contribute $13,000 to the working group's efforts. The money will be budgeted in the water fund this year, city finance director Lowell Swenson said Tuesday. Last year, the city gave $13,500 to the working group, he said. He did not know the reason for the difference in amounts.
Bob Kaul, a Democratic candidate for City Council, wanted to know whether other municipalities were being asked to pay the same amount. Walleyes Unlimited Montana president Mike Barthel, who is a member of the working group, said the amount of money is determined based on each town's population.
Working group interim executive director Larry Mires said Tuesday the money will pay for general operating expenses, such as consulting services, travel and other items.
Barthel said Tuesday the city pays the bureau each year for the water it receives out of the Fresno Reservoir. The city has an agreement to receive up to 2,800 acre-feet a year out of Fresno, and is charged $700 a year for operating and maintenance costs of the St. Mary Diversion. The bureau also charges Havre $6 per acre-foot of water it actually receives, Barthel said. In addition, the city pays $397 per year for Fresno Dam maintenance and repair, under an agreement reached in 1936. Last year, the city received 1,000 acre-feet of water from Fresno.
DNRC has a new Web site for the St. Mary rehabilitation: www.dnrc.state.mt.us/stmarycover.htm.