Three local well-drilling firms have as much as six months worth of back orders for new wells
By Tim Leeds
Another drought expense has been plaguing agricultural producers in north-central Montana recently the expense of finding water.
The drought has drained reservoirs and depleted springs, leaving nothing for livestock to drink.
For example, the water-dependent Hilldale Colony north of Havre, with its large chicken, hog and dairy operations, recently had to drill two wells to replace its traditional water sources.
The water shortage has kept well drillers busy making sure the animals have a source of water.
"It's just all over," Herb Freier of Hi-Line Drilling said. "Stock water wells having to be drilled because reservoirs are dry or so low they have high saline, high alkaline content."
Freier, whose son Rodger is taking over the family business, said Hi-Line Drilling has been drilling new or deeper wells in an area from Malta west to the Rocky Mountains, from Geraldine north to the Canadian border.
"Oh, yeah, it's been a madhouse," Freier said, adding that he's been busier this fall than he was before he turned the business over to his son.
Hi-Line Drilling is not alone. Richard Hickel, who started Hickel & Tooke Drilling Co. in Turner in 1969 with Jim Tooke, said he hasn't seen this much drilling for water in a long time. He said he and his partner sold their second drilling rig to a company in Iowa some years ago, but now his sons, Steve and Greg, have had to buy another to get some extra drilling done.
Hickel said their company has been drilling wells from Phillips County into Hill County, including a lot of work for ag producers around Malta and a lot of drilling on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and around Box Elder.
Bob Jacobson of Jacobson Drilling said he still has six months' worth of work lined up. He has been drilling wells and springs, almost strictly for livestock, from the Sweet Grass Hills to northeast of Whitewater, down to the Missouri River.
The drought is depleting "a lot of big reservoirs built back in the '30s, and the old-timers say they've never gone dry before," he said. "It's been crazy."
The region has seen four years of drought conditions, creating water shortages of historic levels.
"I would say it's the worst for water in some time," said Sam Kleinsasser, farm boss at Hilldale Colony. "Probably worse than (the drought of) '88. We didn't have to resort to ground water for livestock then. I don't think it's ever been this low."
Hi-Line Drilling drilled two wells for Hilldale to supply water to its hogs, chickens and dairy cattle. Andy Waldner of Hilldale said the colony normally relies on two shallow wells and a reservoir, which will supply water for three years if it's full. The reservoir was low last year, and had just enough water to get the colony through until now, he said.
Fred Davey said some work had to be done out at the Robert A. Davey ranch this fall, developing two new springs and digging out a couple of other existing springs.
"And we're only 10 miles from town," he added.
Not only the livestock producers need new wells. There were dry wells up at Saddle Butte southeast of Havre, mainly because the volcanic rock there doesn't hold much water, Freier said. But the top priority is livestock.
"If people are out of water they can haul a bucket," Freier said. "You got 300 head of cattle, you can't put it off. We give agriculture a high priority."
Drilling wells and springs is a tough expense in the time of low yields and low prices for ag products.
Waldner said the wells at Hilldale cost about $20,000, although some help was available to pay for them.
Farm Service Agency program technician Bob LaSalle said FSA has programs to help pay for water production. The Emergency Cost Share Program helps livestock producers who have suffered a loss because of drought. The program pays 50 percent of the cost of developing new permanent water supplies or 64 percent of the cost of developing temporary practices, such as hauling water to a livestock tank.
The Havre FSA office said last week that U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended the time to apply for assistance in Hill County. The program normally stops at the end of the grazing season, but USDA extended that to Dec. 31.
LaSalle said there are some limitations to the FSA program. The land the improvement is for has to have adequate grass for grazing to qualify, and the program can't be used for areas where livestock is grazing crop stubble or for land in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Producers normally can't use CRP land for grazing, but USDA announced in June that because of the drought, it would permit it. The CRP grazing period ended last Friday.
Permanent livestock facilities, such as Hilldale's hog and chicken pens, qualify for the cost share, but facilities that do not house livestock all the time, like calving pens, do not.
The program does not pay for all expenses in developing water supplies either, LaSalle said. It will help pay for drilling, pipelines, developing springs and the like, but not for supplying power to a pump or some other expenses.
Freier said that until the area gets a good supply of moisture, like a big snowstorm and a quick chinook to fill reservoirs and replace subsoil moisture, it's not going to get much better.
"I tell you what we need, and no one wants it, is a severe winter," he said.
Bob Larson, regional manager of the Havre Water Resources Regional Office of Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said much the same thing.
"Last year my biggest fear was another dry year and now my biggest fear is another dry year," he said.
Larson's office helps people get permits and deal with water rights issues, but "we can't create water that isn't there," he said.
The water should come back, but it will take time.
"They'll come back. It's just in this area we're over 7 inches behind average," Larson said. "I don't know if it would come back even if we get one good year. You don't make that up overnight. Eighty-eight was a bad year, but then we recharged and went on. This is a really bad time."
Davey said at least they know there is water available in the worst of years at the Robert Davey ranch now.
"If you get water this year, no matter where you dig, if you've got water there you'll have water forever," he said.