By Tim Leeds
Little to no water is flowing into Fresno Reservoir, but experts say the level should be enough to get north-central Montana communities through the winter.
Tim Felchle, hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Billings, said the bureau has shut down the water coming out of Lake Sherburne into St. Mary River. Water from St. Mary River is diverted into the Milk River. As a result, no water is flowing into Fresno.
But, Felchle said, the level of water in Fresno is still high enough to meet winter demands. He added that having an adequate level is one of the criteria used to determine how much water is released.
Dick Long of the Bureau of Reclamation said today the bureau will be releasing about 5,000 acre feet of water from Fresno to Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta. The Milk River Joint Board of Control made the decision to release the water last week after reviewing use over the summer. About 5,000 allocated acre feet of water had not been used yet, so it will be released, Long said.
The release of the water will drop Fresno Reservoir back to about the level it had on Aug. 1, but Long said the bureau's analysis shows that level should be enough for winter usage.
The Hill County Water District pumps water out of Fresno to serve customers in rural areas and small towns west of Havre, and water is released from the reservoir to be used by irrigators downstream. Havre and Chinook collect water in the Milk River released from Fresno for their residents.
Kim Bunton, manager of the Hill County Water District, said the district is doing all right at the moment. He said 2 of the district's three reservoirs are full, and the district is pumping water into the reserves from Fresno and from the Marias River.
The release of water shouldn't hurt the district, Bunton said, but he added that it's difficult to forecast what will happen.
"We only have to pump through November and we're not doing too bad right now," he said. But "it's going to be close if (the level is) like the first of August."
The water district imposed water restrictions on June 7, when the level of Fresno dropped below the pipe it uses to pump water from the reservoir. The district lifted the restrictions in August, after the reservoir refilled and the district started pumping water again.
Bob Painter, operator at the Chinook water plant, said Chinook is getting enough water right now with the 35 cubic feet per second Fresno is releasing. Chinook imposed water restrictions Aug. 23 when the river was only 2 feet higher than the inlet the plant uses to draw water from the Milk.
The river started to rise shortly after the restrictions were imposed. Painter said he suspects it was so low because people upstream were pumping water out of the river for irrigation. The irrigation districts had restricted irrigators to only using flee-flowing water earlier in the summer, with no pumping from the Milk River allowed.
Chinook amended its restrictions early in September, allowing each half of the town to water on alternate days. Painter said at the time that the level of the river had risen by several feet.
Havre imposed water restrictions in the beginning of September, restricting watering of city parks and limiting lawn-watering to hand watering no more than three days a week.
Dave Peterson, director of public works in Havre, said at the time that Havre imposed the restriction to make sure enough water was flowing downstream for other communities.
"It's more just something to help out a bit," he said.
Jeff Jensen, superintendent of the Havre water plant, said Friday that Havreites have been following the restrictions very well, and he encourages people to continue.
Bunton said one of his worries is about next year.
"If I've got everything full here, we'll be all right through the winter," he said. "(I) just hope for snow in the winter and lots of it."