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Work begins on Milk River project

State and local officials formed a committee Tuesday to begin planning how to prevent catastrophic failure of the system that provides much of the water in the Milk River Valley.

That was one of the actions taken at a meeting hosted by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs in Havre. More than 230 people attended the meeting, a forum on how to rehabilitate the St. Mary diversion to the Milk River.

"This may be our last and only chance, and time is running out," said Randy Reed, chairman of the Milk River Project Development Association. "We need to move from being concerned to taking action."

Among those at the meeting were municipal public works directors and planners, local elected officials, irrigators, state legislators, representatives of the Fort Belknap and Blackfeet Indian reservations, recreationists and users of the municipal water systems on the Milk River.

Representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the Milk River Project, included Great Plains regional director Maryanne Bach and Susan Kelly, manager of the Montana regional office.

The St. Mary system diverts water stored in Lake Sherburne on the border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation into a series of canals and pipes that transfer it to the North Fork of the Milk River, where it enters Canada and re-enters Montana 216 mile later.

The diversion supplies about half of the water to the Milk River in an average year. In the drought year of 2001 it supplied more than 90 percent of the water, principally used by irrigators but also serving the municipal systems in Havre, Harlem and Malta and providing recreational use.

The system was the one of the first built by the Bureau of Reclamation, with construction starting in 1906. Much of it is in need of repair, at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Ohs said he expects that the cost of the project will have to be shared by all involved in it, including people in the Milk River Valley, the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Indian reservations, the state and the federal government.

"It is not a free opportunity," he said. "The state and federal governments must contribute to the costs, but the users in the basin must also be willing to contribute."

The speakers at the meeting pointed out that many issues are involved in rehabilitating the system. Since the North Fork of the Milk River and the St. Mary River both flow into Canada, the United States signed a treaty in 1909 regulating how much water each country can take from the rivers.

Both the Fort Belknap and Blackfeet Indian reservations are negotiating their rights to water from the river in compacts with the state and federal governments.

Chris Tweeten, chairman of the state Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, said after the meeting that the Fort Belknap compact is pending in Congress, waiting a determination on how the state will make sure other users aren't shortchanged when 35,000 acre-feet is allocated to Fort Belknap under the compact.

The compact also depends on rehabilitation of the St. Mary system. The compact is meaningless unless water is available, he said.

"The St. Mary project has to be rehabilitated before the Fort Belknap compact is complete," Tweeten said.

He said negotiations with the Blackfeet Tribe on a water compact are in an earlier stage.

Mike Tatsey, director of water resources for the Blackfeet Tribe, said the Blackfeet will support rehabilitating the system but only if it includes addressing the water rights of the tribe, clearly defines rights of way for the system, and includes assurances the environment will not be damaged by the rehabilitation and that existing damage will be cleaned up.

"We're usually left out and get run over," Tatsey said. "We don't want that to happen again."

Kelly said the harsh weather of the Rocky Mountains has led to the need for repairs.

"The St. Mary system exists in a kind of harsh environment," she said. "It's kind of hard on concrete."

Bach said the system is inspected every year, with any crucial repairs done immediately. Additional repairs are scheduled according to the ability of the irrigators using the water to pay for them.

Under the original authorization of the project, the users of the water must pay for all maintenance and repairs. Kelly said most of the water is allocated for irrigation, with 2 percent going to municipal water.

John Tubbs of the Resource Development Bureau of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the force of water dropping 200 feet through concrete structures causes lots of wear and tear.

"It's like bowling balls, cartloads of bowling balls, going down these drops. If (the drops) fail, it's a bad, bad deal," he said. "They need to be reinvested in."

The forum introduced a draft plan of actions presented by Paul Azevedo of DNRC. Azevedo is the state coordinator for rehabilitating the St. Mary facilities.

He and Ohs asked people to help organize a working group that includes representatives of the 12 or more groups with stakes in the rehabilitation of the diversion, with a meeting tentatively set for Jan. 12 in Havre or Malta.

The responsibilities of the group include making sure issues raised by people in the Milk River Valley are included in the planning, organizing support of local people for the rehabilitation, and keeping them informed.

Other responsibilites include working with Montana's congressional delegation for funding the rehabilitation, working with the state agencies and the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, and helping decide how to spread the cost of the project among those involved.

Azevedo's plan also includes asking the Bureau of Reclamation to draft legislation asking Congress to pay for a feasibility study on the rehabilitation, and organizing a team to coordinate different state agencies that have interests in the water provided by the irrigation project.

Future actions include asking Congress to fund the rehabilitation.

Azevedo said the draft of the legislation will be ready for review at the first meeting of the working group.

"We're going to need to hit the ground running. We hope to have the legislation drafted and get it into Congress by February," he said.

Ohs will chair the working group, which will include representatives of state government, irrigators, municipalities, tribes, businesses, recreation groups, environmental and fishery groups, the Montana congressional delegation, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Azevedo said he wants to find one or two representatives from each of the groups to join the team.

Ohs said people who want to get involved need to be ready to make a long-term commitment. It will take several years to get the appropriations for a feasibility study, then get the money to design the rehabilitation and do the work.

"The rewards are great. Also, the challenges are great. We need to look at issues and find solutions," Ohs said. "In that spirit I challenge you."

People can contact Azevedo at: Paul Azevedo, state coordinator for rehabilitating the St. Mary facilities, P.O. Box 201601, DNRC, Helena, MT 59620-1601; (406) 444-6635; [email protected].


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