Havre Daily News
The push to repair the aging St. Mary diversion is moving toward Washington, D.C., and Congress this summer could review a proposed solution to the problems associated with the crumbling water-supply system.
Members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, which met in Havre, spent much of Wednesday morning debating the wording of proposed legislation intended to get the federal government to take the lion's share of responsibility for the repair of the system, which many say is on the brink of catastrophic failure.
If the proposal is too general, key issues tied to the diversion's rehabilitation could be overlooked, some said. Other members said an overly specific document could, if approved, inadvertantly create problems that would hold up the repair effort for years to come.
A looming deadline didn't help.
But a five-minute conference call with U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, D-Mont., gave the advisory board the direction it needed.
The senator's message: Get legislative staffers the basics, and they'll “tighten it down” if needed.
Working group members spent the rest of Wednesday's meeting setting out the broad strokes of the proposal, which they plan to send to Montana's congressional delegation by the end of next week.
Burns also told the group he's met with presidential adviser Karl Rove to keep the White House abreast of the group's efforts.
Afterward, group members called Wednesday's meeting a turning point in their cause.
Co-chair Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger called the meeting “critical.”
“I think we're seeing all of these different entities come into agreement,” he said of the group representing irrigators, local and tribal governments, economic development proponents and recreation advocates. “I marvel at this group.”
“This was a milestone for us,” Chinook farmer and group co-chair Randy Reed said. “All these meetings are starting to pay off.”
The diversion was one of the first five projects recognized under the 1902 Reclamation Act, and construction began in 1906. Water was first carried from the St. Mary River through the 29-mile system of canals, siphons and drop structures to the north fork of the Milk River in 1916. Before the system was built, the Milk River ran dry six out of every 10 summers.
The system supplies 17,000 northern Montana residents with water and irrigates roughly 140,000 acres in the basin.
In recent years, concern that the structures could suffer catastrophic failure has grown. Leaks have sprung in the 8-foot siphons - steel pipes that bring St. Mary water from one basin to the next - and have been patched with old tractor tires in some cases. A crucial bridge carrying the siphons has been damaged, and the five concrete drop structures have crumbled, exposing support beams.
The system also has caused environmental concerns on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where the entire facility is located, including large deposits of sediment in Lower St. Mary Lake.
The proposal to fix the ailing system needs to be in legislative counsels' hands as soon as possible, Burns and his representatives said.
“We have less legislative days this year than in noncampaign years. There's no hard and fast deadline,” Burns spokesman Matt Mackowiak said today. “The sooner we have it, the sooner we can act upon it and get this moving.”
He said legislative counsel would work quickly to hammer out the details and get the proposal back to working group members for further review.
“We're going to put a rush on it,” Mackowiak said, adding that the process can sometimes take a week or more. “This will be done as quickly as possible.”
The proposal contains an umbrella provision that calls for the reauthorization of the entire Milk River Project - which includes the St. Mary diversion and flood control and irrigation infrastructure throughout the basin - as a multi-use project. Federal legislation, now more than a century old, recognizes the project only as an irrigation system, which means water contract holders are solely responsible for maintenance and repair of the diversion. The diversion's rehab is estimated to cost between $125 million and $135 million.
If the group can persuade Congress to recognize the other benefits inherent in the project - including recreation, flood control and wildlife benefits - the needed repairs would become largely the responsibility of U.S. taxpayers.
A crucial section of the proposal would direct the secretary of the Interior to focus on reconstructing the diversion works, while another would seek the possible rehabilitation of other structures throughout the Milk River Basin.
The Department of Interior directive is one item working group members will continue to review as state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation personnel work alongside a consultant to strengthen the proposal.
“I just don't think we're hitting the nail on the head with St. Mary's,” DNRC resource development bureau chief John Tubbs said.
Tubbs and DNRC staff will work closely with Kent Heidt, a Billings consultant who spent 32 years with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the entity that manages the Milk River Project facilities. The working group hired him last year to assist with drafting the proposal.
The proposal also includes sections to provide benefits to the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap tribes, and a provision that would call for the restoration of Fresno Reservoir, which has acculated sediment, to its original capacity.
A separate document will be forwarded to congressional staffers as well, in order to keep them abreast of issues the group's members are concerned about but unsure whether to include in the document.
The working group will hold a teleconference next week to address the revamped proposal before sending it to congressional offices. Tubbs and working group executive director Larry Mires will be in Washington, D.C., the following week and will assist legislative counsel with the document.
The working group will also ask Montana delegates to consider legislation that would designate the project as part of the Pick-Sloan program, a complex federal program that already recognizes the multi-use nature of water supply infrastructure. The program is married to power generation, and would relieve Milk River contract holders of the bulk of their responsibility for funding the diversion's repair, Tubbs said after the meeting.
Working group members believe they can designate the Milk River Project as a part of Pick-Sloan because the Milk River Basin empties into the Missouri River Basin.
Pick-Sloan projects often require complicated and lengthy negotiations with power cooperatives, which buy energy from the Western Area Power Administration and are responsible for the vast majority of infrastructure costs associated with such projects, Tubbs said.
The working group has submitted a request for $14.45 million in federal funding, the bulk of which is intended for an environmental impact statement, required by federal law, before work could begin on the diversion facilities. The request also includes money for engineering services, additional studies and Blackfeet vocational training.
Working group co-chair Reed said Montana's congressional delegation has been indespensible in the board's efforts to move the rehabilitation forward, and Mires said the group's involvement at national and regional water conferences has drawn the interest of representatives from the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Burns said the St. Mary rehabilitation is very important to him, and told working group members that he appreciated their efforts.
“You know the challenges ahead of us and what needs to be done,” he said.
“Conrad is emphatic about this project this year,” his representative, Sarah Converse, said during Wednesday's meeting. She said Burns told her last year that the diversion needed to be repaired or “FEMA's going to be in here cleaning it up.”