ROUNDUP — Part of the legacy of flooding earlier this year by the Musselshell River in central Montana goes beyond how high the river rose to how much it changed the landscape, residents say.
Ranchers say it covered cropland in river sand, made some irrigation projects useless and left one suspension bridge with nothing to span.
"This used to all be hayfield, all the way to the head gate way over there," said Joe Vescovi, surveying the remains of an old dam now 50 yards from the river and about 8 feet above it.
The Billings Gazette reports (http://bit.ly/oYFkYV) that the Natural Resources Conservation Service has approved about 80 irrigation repair projects from some 335 requests, using up its $5.2 million funding.
But that didn't include the Naderman Ditch Co., of which Vescovi is a member. Tom Vandeberg, another member, said repair costs of up to $4 million and the fact that only six ranchers use the ditch likely led to it not receiving federal money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for repairs.
"When the NRCS guy came out here with his calculator and said, 'Well, that will be a $3 million to $4 million project and we're not interested in helping,' I knew we were on our own," Vandeberg said.
But Vandeberg said doing nothing isn't an option either.
"There's not many of us, but we can't survive if we can't irrigate," said Vandeberg. "If it takes years to fix, we might as well go out of business."
What's more, officials say changes in the river make it more susceptible to changes again next spring. Much of Montana experienced flooding earlier this year due to heavy rain and melting of a huge winter snowpack in the mountains.
The Musselshell River meanders about 500 miles from the Crazy Mountains to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Vescovi said part of the river was relocated a century ago by the Milwaukee Railroad, but the river returned to its old channels during the flood.
"In several spots where there used to be big bends and horseshoes, now the river is running more through the middle," said Krist Walstad, who runs the NRCS field office in Roundup. "It shortened the river significantly, so that increases velocity."