Havre Daily News
CHINOOK - U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns on Wednesday said it will take “a little horse trading” to get Congress to agree to fix the St. Mary diversion facilities, but said he is confident that the legislation can be pushed through both houses this year.
“We'll get this thing done,” Burns, R-Mont., told members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group at their monthly meeting.
A member of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Burns said committee chair Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has agreed to hold hearings on legislation that would shift the majority of the financial burden of the diversion's repair from the backs of Milk River irrigators to the federal government. He said the legislation will go to the Senate floor, and called its passage his “No. 1 priority.”
Burns said he would work to “educate” other members of Congress about the importance of the diversion's repair, just as those other representatives seek to keep him abreast of projects in their home states.
Earlier this month, working group members hashed out the basics of the legislation and sent it to Montana's congressional delegation. Legislative attorneys are hammering out the langauge, which will be returned to the working group in several weeks for review before it is sent back to Capitol Hill.
The proposal asks the federal government to pay for the bulk of the estimated $125 million project. The 29-mile system of canals, siphons and drops supplies 17,000 northern Montana residents with water and irrigates roughly 140,000 acres in the Milk River Basin. Before the first delivery of water through the system in 1916, the Milk River ran dry six out of every 10 summers.
The working group and the state are asking the U.S. government to recognize the diversion's benefits beyond irrigation - such as recreation, flood control, and fish-and-wildlife habitat - and therefore make U.S. taxpayers responsible for the bulk of its repair
The group's proposal asks the federal government to take on 55 percent of the diversion's repair.The remaining 45 percent would be the responsibility of the state and of local contract holders - up to $25 million. Any cost above that cap also would be covered by the federal government. The state and local share would be split evenly.
The contract holders' responsibility - up to $12.5 million - would be a 40-year, no-interest loan, Reed said, amounting to a $3-per-acre annual fee.
Persuading Congress to shoulder the bulk of the diversion's repair costs is one step in the battle. If the legislation is passed, then work to secure funding would begin in earnest.
When asked about the chances of squeezing cash out of Congress - which has committed billions to the war in Iraq and the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast - Burns spoke of the importance of security and of funding the war on terrorism.
“This is important, too,” he added.
Burns lauded working group members for their hard work in bringing the proposal this far, and said all three of Montana's congressional delegates - U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus have repeatedly stated their support for the fix - would depend on the working group for support and information as the finish line draws near.
Working group members also had kind words for Burns. Co-chair Randy Reed recalled a recent meeting between group members and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials held in Burns' offices.
“To see you point your finger at those upper-level bureaucrats and say ‘This is my No. 1 priority - Get this done' was a real pleasure for me,” Reed said.
Burns is calling for a Westerner to take the place of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner John Keys III, who on Friday announced his resignation.
In an interview, Reed said Keys' retirement doesn't have much of an impact on the group's work.
The challenge, he said, is to get Congress to approve the reconstruction and agree to take on most of the cost. If that goal is reached, the bureau would simply be directed to get the job done, Reed said.
The outlook for Milk River irrigators is a positive one this year, with above-average snowpack in the Rockies and reservoir levels at or above normal, a Bureau of Reclamation official said.
The bureau began this year's diversion operations on March 6, a little earlier than normal, Marias and Milk River division manager Ed Hedlund said. The leading edge of St. Mary's water is beginning to reach Fresno Reservoir, and a measurable rise in the water level should be seen in the coming weeks, he said.
Lake Sherburne's storage is at 157 percent of normal, and storage at Fresno is 108 percent of normal, he said.
Transferring water from Lake Sherburne to the Fresno and Nelson reservoirs will maximize the bureau's ability to catch runoff, Hedlund said.