A group working to rebuild the system that supplies water to the Milk River is nearly finished drafting legislation asking Congress to pay for a study of the system.
"I think we're on track," Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs said this morning, "I think there's a little challenge in trying to get it all done, but I think we will."
The working group met Wednesday in Great Falls and finalized the group's membership.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., attended part of the meeting and then toured the diversion after flying to Babb. He said he better understands the need to repair the system, called the St. Mary Diversion.
"Yesterday was an educational day for me," Rehberg said in a telephone interview this morning.
"That's one of those projects, it had a 100-year life and it's lived 100 years," he said. "It's a tough time back here (in Washington) trying to balance the budget, but we need to prioritize."
Rehberg said the request for money to pay for a study of the benefits of the diversion - he said the number discussed at the meeting Wednesday was about $4 million - seems small in terms of the federal budget, but it will have to compete with other projects brought to Congress.
The state coordinator for the project, Paul Azevedo of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said initial work on the study could begin this fall. The study will examine the benefits provided by the diversion to all Milk River water users, including irrigators, cities that depend on it for water, and recreational users, as well as wildlife and environmental benefits.
Azevedo said the earliest the study would receive federal funding is probably January of 2005, but if state and local money can be found to pay for preliminary work this fall, the study could be done and requests for funding for engineering and initial construction could be prepared by February 2006.
"The ball is starting to roll," he said.
The diversion was one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after it was created in 1902.
The St. Mary Diversion was created to supply irrigation water from Lake Sherburne to the Milk River Valley. It uses a diversion dam, two sets of steel pipes that siphon water nearly a mile, 29 miles of canals and a set of concrete drop structures to transfer water from the St. Mary River into the North Fork of the Milk River. The water then runs through Canada about 200 miles before it re-enters Montana.
The Bureau of Reclamation has estimated the diversion is in need of $100 million in repairs. The original authorization requires the irrigators using the water to pay for repairs in the year the repairs are done.
The diversion has provided other benefits. Havre, Chinook and Harlem have contracts with the bureau to use water from the Milk River for municipal use, which totals about 2 percent of the water used.
The diversion also provides water for recreational use and to support wildlife in the river valley and in Fresno Reservoir west of Havre and Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta.
Montana's U.S. senators are also working on the issue.
J.P. Donovan, spokesman for Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, said Burns met with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys last week to talk about repairing the diversion.
"We need to get something done," Donovan said. "We're looking at it from several angles."
Donovan said Burns' membership on the Senate Appropriations Committee will let him look at different alternatives for funding the reconstruction project.
Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, in response to a reporter's question, said in an e-mail that he is working with the state government to find a solution to repair the diversion.
"I'm very concerned for all of the users of the Milk River," Baucus said. "My primary concerns with the St. Mary's project are to ensure the safety of the area and the efficiency flows downstream. Irrigators should not shoulder the financial burden of this project. "
Jerry Leggate of the Bureau of Reclamation said there are several possible sources of funding for the project.
If a study shows that the diversion provides benefits in areas other than irrigation - for instance, for fish, wildlife and the environment - the state could ask Congress to alter the authorization for the project, he said. That could shift some of the cost from the irrigators, Leggate said.
He said there also are ways that loans could be used to spread the cost over time so the entire amount wouldn't be needed up front. That could be a complex process, and is very competitive, he said.
"That is a longer shot, if you will," Leggate said.
He said the working group Ohs organized is examining different possibilities to rebuild the project.
"The state has done a good job of bringing the right people to the table," he said.
The working group includes Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., and Mike Barthel, Havre assistant police chief and president-elect of Walleyes Unlimited of Montana.