Local support grows for repair of Milk River water source


Local irrigators, sportsmen, politicians and water users have lots to say about the status of the system that diverts water to the Milk River.

"It's a federal project and there's a damn tractor tire wired around it. We're paying a half million in (operations and maintenance) and there's a tire keeping the water from squirting out," said Randy Reed of Chinook, chairman of the Milk River Project Development Association.

The Fresno Chapter of Walleye Unlimited hosted a meeting Tuesday in Havre so Kim Falcon could collect information for Sen. Max Baucus about the need to repair the St. Mary Project. Falcon is Baucus' field director for the area.

The St. Mary Project, one of the first projects the federal Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after it was created in 1902, normally supplies about half of the water in the Milk River throughout the year. Congress authorized the project to supply water to irrigators in the Milk River area.

Doug Heltne of the Fresno Chapter said people in the Milk River valley need to be aware that the system provides much more than irrigation water and recreation. It also provides the drinking water supply for people between northern Hill County and Valley County.

In a bad year, the diversion is crucial. Last year, the third year of a severe drought, it supplied more than 90 percent of the water in the Milk River, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

"If this system fails, we won't have to worry about any issues because there isn't any water," Hugh Crowell of the Fresno Chapter said.

That's because the year-round flow of the river is not natural, said Lenny Duberstein, a bureau civil engineer overseeing a study on repairing the project. The Milk River only flowed part of the year until the St. Mary Project started diverting extra water to it from Lake Sherburne, and Fresno Dam was built to store the water, he said.

It's crucial to get the repairs included in a water compact being negotiated by the Fort Belknap Indian Community, Reed said. If the repairs are part of the compact, they will go to the top of the Bureau of Reclamation's priorities, he said. If not, they will go to the bottom, he added.

The water compact is stalled in the Department of Interior, he said. He hopes Baucus can get it moving again.

The estimate to fully rehabilitate the diversion is about $100 million, but Mike Dailey of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said that is not a hard and fast number. Depending on how much other work is done along the length of the irrigation project, it could be significantly higher, possibly as much as $200 million, he said.

The Milk River Project Development Association was formed to coordinate a broad-based coalition seeking congressional support to rehabilitate the irrigation system, Reed said.

The St. Mary Project, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, uses a dam to divert water coming from Lake Sherburne to a system of canals nine miles long. The canals lead to two 90-inch-wide gravity-fed siphons that carry the water 3,200 feet over a divide to another set of canals. Another siphon is used farther along the canal.

The canals carry the water another 18 miles to a system of concrete structures that drop the water more than 200 feet and release it into the north fork of the Milk River. The water then flows into Canada and returns to Montana and is caught at Fresno Reservoir.

Fresno Dam was built in the mid-1930s, primarily to store water for the irrigation project and for flood control.

"Fresno is not an isolated reservoir. It's part of a system," Duberstein said.

The diversion, the Milk River, Fresno Reservoir and Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta are part of the system.

"That's kind of the context of the project we're talking about here," he said. "We've got a whole caboodle of issues here."

The irrigation districts from Havre to Glasgow that use the Milk River as a water source pay about $500,000 for the operation and maintenance of the system, Deby Murch of the Glasgow Irrigation District said. The money comes from fees charged to the members of the districts.

Kay Blatter is chairman of the Milk River Joint Board of Control, which has representatives of the different irrigation districts on the river. He said work to repair the diversion after the heavy precipitation in early June not only shut the diversion down for about a month, but cost the irrigation districts an extra $120,000.

The most pressing issue is rehabilitating the entire St. Mary structure, Duberstein said. That it was built at all with the technology available at the turn of the century is an amazing feat, he said, adding that problems arose immediately.

The construction was plagued by soil becoming saturated and sliding down hillsides.

"That's been a problem that's plagued this project from Day One," he said.

But the main problem is one of age, he added. Irrigation projects have an expected life of about 50 years. Most of the St. Mary Project is 80 to 90 years old.

The canals lose water, the siphons lose water, the concrete drops have been pummeled by water dropping through them for decades, Duberstein said. The canals have no leeway for additional water coming in, and the saturated soil often sloughs off and blocks the canals.

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that about 20 percent of the water diverted by the first dam is lost because of leakage before the water hits the Milk River, Duberstein said.

Until money comes through to completely rehabilitate the system, the irrigation districts will continue with their current maintenance, Blatter said. The system will be evaluated once it stops running in the late fall, and the bureau and irrigation districts will prioritize projects that have to be done to keep it functioning with the limited money they have.


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