Havre Daily News
Proposed legislation to repair and rebuild the St. Mary diversion is headed to the Montana congressional delegation for review, and the aim is to get the federal government to take responsibility for the lion's share of the repairs' cost. The hope is that Congress will consider the proposal this year.
“That's a milestone,” St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group co-chair Randy Reed said today. “This is why we've been going to all of these meetings ... and putting all of these players together - to rehab that facility and see some improvement. We're there. I just have a big ol' smile on my face.”
Working group members held a conference call Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft of the proposal. They still have questions about some issues in the proposal, but Reed said legislative attorneys will be able to make recommendations before sending the document back to working group members for review.
“They have legislative folks that do this all of the time, so we've got to get it to them and let them work on it,” he said.
The proposal asks the federal government to cover the majority of the estimated $125 million rehabilitation of the diversion, which augments the flow of the Milk River by transferring water from the St. Mary River to the Milk's north fork through a 29-mile system of canals, siphons and drops. The system supplies 17,000 northern Montana residents with water and irrigates roughly 140,000 acres in the Milk River Basin.
The 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. If the other uses are recognized, U.S. taxpayers would be responsible for funding the repairs. Under current law, those costs fall on the backs of irrigators.
Before the first delivery of water through the system in 1916, the Milk River ran dry six out of every 10 summers.
Many are concerned that the diversion could suffer catastrophic failure, and the system also has caused environmental concerns on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where the entire facility is located.
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, Reed said.
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.
The proposal also asks that the federal government pay for the entire cost of a new outlet at Lake Sherburne, a project that is now on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's agenda, Reed said. As it stands now, irrigators would pay for the cost of the work, which is needed to address issues that affect bull trout, a threatened species, he said.
The proposal represents a large first step. If Congress approves the document, work to secure federal appropriations to actually fund the rehabilitation would continue.