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Gianforte gives commitment to repairs of St. Mary Diversion


Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. listens to an attendee speak during a meeting about the St. Mary's Rehabilitation Project Wednesday in the Bear Paw Development Corp. Conference Room in the Ryan Building.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., told the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group Wednesday in Havre that he will work to rehabilitate the system that provides much of the water in the Milk River each year.

"I've got my marching orders," he said. "... You have my commitment."

It's been 17 years since the St. Mary's Rehabilitation Working Group was established to find a workable solution to repairing the St. Mary Diversion.

"There's no infrastructure project more important than the St. Mary's project, it's at the top of our list," Gianforte said.

The working group held a meeting Wednesday to talk with Gianforte about rehabilitating the St. Mary Diversion, a more-than-100-year-old system that diverts water from the St. Mary River to the Milk River.

The system, funded primarily by irrigators on the Milk River, has been band-aided together for decades. The working group was formed in 2002 to find ways to get the system fully repaired.

Gainforte met with the working group to discuss what he can do in Congress to help make the needed improvements.

A number of group members voiced concerns the group has had over the years as well as informed Gianforte on what is needed to complete the project.

Gianforte said that another priority is settling the water compacts with the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes and the tribes on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation as well as providing funding for the Blackfoot Nation water compact.

Gianforte said that he is proposing in Congress a funding shift to change the format of funding for the St. Mary Diversion Dam from irrigators paying 75 percent of the funding to 25 percent, with the federal government funding 75 percent.

Gianforte and Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced the legislation May 2.

Gianforte added that he is willing to fight for this because it is such a critical part to the Hi-Line community, which he said seems logical because at one time it was entirely funded by the federal government.

"Seventeen years is a long time. We need to get this done," Gianforte said. "I'd like to be your advocate back in Washington to find a vehicle to get the funding. ... The state's done their part; now the federal government has do do their part."

He added that he will also be looking into getting the full $150 million in funding needed from the federal government for the St. Mary project, as well as trying to have the construction be under control of the local communities.

The working group members said that they do not want control over the system and for the responsibility to still be federal, but if the construction was overseen locally it would be cheaper and completed in a more timely manner.

The St. Mary's Working Group was formed in 2002 to find a workable solution to the aging infrastructure of the St. Mary Diversion. Since then, the group has worked to get funding and support for the reconstruction of the system, which uses a diversion dam and 29 miles of canals, drops and siphons to transport the water to the Milk River, but has made little progress due to funding issues, federal regulations, endangered species and negotiations with tribal lands and water compacts.

Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss noted that, before the diversion was built, 7 out of 10 years the Milk River dried up by fall.

Working group Co-Chair Marko Manoukian testified in Helena earlier this year in the Legislature for the infrastructure bills, House Bill 8 and 52, which provided $40 million for irrigators to use for their share if the 25-75 split is accomplished.

He said one of the legislators asked what the working group has accomplished since it was established.

Manoukian said that the group had not made much progress in that time due to a number of variables but not because of a lack of trying.

"I'm embarrassed to be before you for 17 years," he said he told the legislator. "If we're the most richest country in the globe but we can't fix a pothole or an irrigation system where are we at? And I don't want to pass these issues on to future generations because they are going to be on the hook for some other things, so we need to act and act now."

Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, said that in the past the state of Montana gave authority to bond $10 million for the working group which had to be matched with federal funds, but the federal funds never were provided. In January of this year, he said, he and Manoukian met with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and informed Daines that the state didn't have enough money to complete the project.

The project would cost between $150,000 to $200,000 to complete.

The group said part of the problem is that the diversion is so damaged it could fail at any time. Every year when the water is drained the group find large voids underneath each drop. Because of its age and poor condition, the diversion requires more maintenance. Recently one of the pipes cracked and the system started losing 10 cubic-feet-per-second, and this is not the only leak, the group members said, adding that the canal is made to transfer 850 cfs but is barely putting out 550 to 600 cfs. This water is a complete loss and no one is able to capture and utilize it.

Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson said that 10 cfs, although it may sound like a small amount, is enough water to supply water to 17,000 residents in Havre.

Manoukian said that if the dam were to fail, producers would have to farm dry land rather than irrigated, which would result in a million dollars a year loss in tax revenue and decrease productivity for producers by 10 times.

The group members told Gianforte that many communities along the Hi-Line, tribal and non-tribal, rely on the water provided by St. Mary, not only irrigators.


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