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Lobbying planned for Milk River water source

Local and state officials will meet this month in Havre to plan an effort to lobby Congress for money to fix the system that provides water to the Milk River.

Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs will be in Havre for the Nov. 18 meeting, as will local and other state officials and representatives of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. They will hold the public meeting to discuss the need to repair the Milk River Project, particularly the diversion that supplies half or more of the water in the Milk River every year.

The rehabilitation of the project is estimated to cost at least $100 million.

The Milk River Project diverts water from the St. Mary River into the Milk, where it is eventually stored in Fresno and Nelson reservoirs and diverted by dikes for irrigation. The Milk also provides water to residents of Havre, Chinook and Harlem.

A combination of events, including negotiation for a water compact between the state and federal government and the Fort Belknap Indian Community, has created the opportunity to rebuild the 100-year-old Milk River Project, said Randy Reed of the Milk River Project Development Association.

He added that unless north-central Montana comes together as a community to lobby for money, he doesn't think it can be done.

"It's one of those golden opportunities that's come around," Reed said.

The Milk River Board of Control, which oversees the five irrigation districts on the Milk, the association, and the Fresno Chapter of Walleyes Unlimited began organizing grass-roots support for the effort more than a year ago.

Reed, who uses the water to irrigate crops in Blaine County and drinks treated water from the river, said the need to coordinate support for repairing the system is incredibly important.

"It could fail at any time," Reed said. "This is our water, whether you irrigate a lawn or irrigate a crop or drink water."

Reed is helping organize a meeting at the Chinook Motor Inn at 7 p.m. Thursday to update people on the plans to rehabilitate the system and to prepare them for the Nov. 18 meeting in Havre. The Havre meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Olympic Room of the Duck Inn.

Lenny Duberstein, engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, said much of the system is in need of repair. The bureau estimates that about 20 percent of the water diverted from the St. Mary is lost due to leakage before it reaches the Milk.

Reed said John Keys, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, made it clear at a meeting last summer that the bureau does not have the money to pay for the rehabilitation, and the system's users will have to lobby Congress for funding.

"The effort has to be locally driven," Reed said.

Ohs said the state government understands the importance of the project to the economy of north-central Montana, and that it will probably be able to provide some matching funds for the repairs as it has for other water projects. He said the state also can work with the Montana's congressional delegation to request federal appropriations.

"It's important for the state to take leadership in this issue," he said.

The diversion system provides about half the water that runs through the Milk River in an average year. In the drought year of 2001, it supplied more than 90 percent of the river's water.

The users of water from the system pay for operation and maintenance of the system.

Reed said that when he goes to look at the diversion's system of dikes, canals, tubes and concrete drop structures in the Rocky Mountains, the need for repairs is obvious.

"If you go up and stand at one of those drops you can kick the rotting concrete over," he said. "You say, 'Man, this is spooky.'"

Ohs said the state realizes the need to repair the system.

"It's been in existence now for almost 100 years. It's time we do something with that," he said. "For north-central Montana, if that system would fail, it would be disastrous."

Several issues have brought about the opportunity to rehabilitate the system. The Bureau of Reclamation has submitted a study to the White House Office of Management and Budget that analyzes more than 20 alternatives to repair the Milk River Project, Duberstein said. While the study in itself could not be used for a request for authorization or funding, it would cut down the time to do studies for such requests, he said.

One major factor is the water compact being negotiated with the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Reed said that since the water supplied by the diversion affects the water supply of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, repair of the system could be made a condition of the compact. That would make it easier to lobby for money for the project, he said.

The drought in north-central Montana has increased the awareness of the need for the system. From 1998 to 2001, the diversion supplied most of the water in the river. If the diversion had failed, people living near the river would not have had water through much of the year, Duberstein said.

The diversion system is a marvel of turn-of-the-century engineering. Construction on the project, including the use of steam shovels and excavators, began in 1906.

Water is stored in Lake Sherburne on the border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Water released from Sherburne is diverted by a dike on the St. Mary River. The water flows through 9-miles of canal, then is carried by two 8-foot-wide steel siphons more than 3,000 feet, where it enters another canal that carries it 29 miles to the north fork of the Milk River. The canal includes a series of concrete structures that drop the water more than 200 feet before releasing it into the Milk.

The Milk River flows into Canada, then carries the water back into Montana more than 200 miles later.

The diversion system has been repaired many times over the years, including the repair of a major leak in 1999 that could have caused the system to wash out at that spot and shut down the diversion, according to Duberstein.

That repair shut the system down for about a month, and cost the irrigation districts an extra $120,000.

The Milk River Project was one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to work on after it was created in 1902.


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