By Tim Leeds
The system that provides half or more of the water to the Milk River has lasted 40 years past its expected lifespan, and is in need of nearly $100 million in repairs.
That was the main message politicians, irrigators and residents from the Milk River Basin had for a representative of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus at a public meeting in Chinook Tuesday.
The meeting was organized by Chinook resident Randy Reed, who drinks municipal water from the Milk River, fishes the river and irrigates crops with water from the river.
In a good year, the St. Mary Project diverts enough water from Lake Sherburne on the east side of Glacier National Park to supply about half the water in the Milk River.
In bad years it supplies more. Last year the St. Mary diversion supplied about 95 percent of the water. And it's not in good shape.
Lenny Duberstein, a civil engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said before the meeting that a system like the St. Mary Project is generally designed to last 50 years. The project was one of the first the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to create after it was formed in 1902.
It uses two 90-inch pipes to siphon water about 3,200 feet, over the Hudson Bay Divide, to a canal that transports the water 29 miles to the North Fork of the Milk River.
"The system's 90 years old," Duberstein said. "It's in need of rehabilitation, pretty much every piece. It's definitely served its life."
Major repairs have been done on the system, some of which still uses infrastructure built by the bureau early in the 1900s. In 1999, major leaks were detected that had saturated hillsides, causing the pipes to slide and buckle. Duberstein said repairs done last year may have prevented the entire system from washing out.
"It looks like it actually averted disaster," he said.
Kay Blatter, chairman of the Milk River Board of Control, which coordinates irrigation districts from Chinook to Glasgow, said during the meeting that people in the basin believe they need to start lobbying Congress to replace the whole system, instead of continuing to make repairs.
"We've been putting Band-Aids on, basically is what's happening," he said.
Another issue that could raise a problem are the bull trout, an endangered species, in the Lake Sherburne and St. Mary water system. The Bureau of Reclamation is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if the diversion system is affecting the trout population.
Duberstein said that as long as the different agencies can continue to cooperate, there shouldn't be a problem. But there could be.
"That is a real possibility," he said during the meeting. "Someone could file a suit and we'd have to shut the system down."
The bureau plans to install some electronic devices this fall to prevent bull trout from getting into the system. Duberstein said similar systems are used in other areas of the country, but there's no way to know how effective they'll be at the St. Mary Project until they are installed.
Tests are in the works to determine how many trout are actually affected by the system, he said, and different alternatives will be examined to solve any problem found.
One alternative would be installing fish screens, with a price tag close to $11 million.
"These projects are expensive," Duberstein said.
Blatter said members of the irrigation districts already pay about $500,000 a year to maintain the St. Mary Project, and about $1.1 million to operate the entire irrigation system. They can't afford to pay $11 million more for the trout, or $100 million to replace the system, he said.
Dan Jewel, a Bureau of Reclamation official from Billings, said the federal government is probably going to pay a part, but not all, of the cost.
"I would also submit that they won't be the only ones at the table," he said. "Certainly not the only ones with checkbook in hand."
Jewel said before the meeting that he expects the U.S. government will at least require some matching funds from Montana to do the work.
Duberstein said he is conducting a comprehensive study of the problems in the Milk River Basin, which he expects to be completed by January 2004. That study could come up with a project that could be submitted to Congress for funding, he said.
Duberstein said the need for a comprehensive study became obvious while the Native American tribes at Rocky Boy's, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet reservations negotiated their water compacts independently.
Baucus' Great Falls field representative, Kim Falcon, asked the group, which included irrigators, municipal water users and city, county and state politicians, what people want the Montana Democrat to do.
"We're talking real money here, even for Congress," she said.
The issues should be prioritized, she said, so if there are some short-term needs, they could be acted on quickly. But there has to be a complete plan to present to Congress for a major project, not generalities, she added.
"That's a hard, cold reality," Falcon said.
Several people during the meeting said the water issue affects many people other than irrigators, although the St. Mary Project is actually an irrigation project.
Duberstein pointed out that the irrigation project supplies water used by municipalities from Havre to Glasgow.
"If it wasn't for the St. Mary system there would be no municipal water supply right now," he said.
Falcon said she expects the discussions to grow to include more and more people affected by the water system.
"I think this is just the start of the conversation," she said.
Max Maddox of Chinook said one issue that should be acted on is completing the water compact with the Fort Belknap reservation. The St. Mary Project and the water compact hinge on each other, he said, and while the Montana Legislature has approved the compact, "it's languishing in Congress."
George Knudsen of Malta asked, "Can farmers be put on the endangered species list?"
Water is the lifeblood, wherever people are, Knudsen said. Everybody on the Milk River benefits from the water provided by the St. Mary Project, but the irrigators seem to be the ones paying for it, he said.
Most of the problems he was hearing Tuesday were the same problems he heard 30 years ago, Knudsen said. He was told then that solving the problems wasn't feasible.
"We could study forever and not solve the problem," he said. " I'd like you to ask (Baucus) for $100 million."