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St. Mary working group meeting Friday to discuss diversion failure


Members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group are having a meeting Friday about the collapse Sunday of a drop structure in the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Facilities that supply much of the water in the Milk River each year.

“If we don’t start addressing this disaster immediately, the water rationing for irrigators and municipalities will be much worse next year,” St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group Co-Chair and Montana State University Phillips County Extension Agent Marko Manoukian said.

  He said winter time is not a good time to start addressing the failure of drop 5.

St. Mary Working Group Co-Chair Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said the drop structure failing is a major problem.

“The catastrophic failure of the Drop structure No. 5 severs the St. Mary River water supply from the Milk River Basin — waters that are vital to the economy,” he said. “While exceptional moisture last fall gives the basin a silver living as storage in Fresno Reservoir and in Nelson Reservoir will allow limited water supply for the 2020 irrigation season and can be maintained to provide municipal water over the next winter, immediate action is necessary to maintain any chance of making repairs to reconnect the St. Mary water supply with the Milk River.”

He said the state is in contact with the Milk River Joint Board of Control and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and has pledged its technical and financial support during this crisis. 

The impacts of this failure, he said, impacts lands on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, causes loss of water supply to the Canadian community of Milk River and the irrigation north of the U.S. border, and loss of supply to the Milk River irrigation projects and communities, are happening now. 

“We will continue to push for immediate action to remediate this infrastructure failure that could result in financial failures in Montana’s Milk River basin,” Cooney said.

St. Mary Working Group member and Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss said this is catastrophic.

“We’ve known for decades that the day would come when that structure would experience a catastrophic failure,” he said. “Everybody was hoping against hope that day would be far into the future and that we would be able rehabilitate the St. Mary’s system prior to when that catastrophic failure would occur.”

He said now the state is faced with the reality of not having St. Mary water in the Milk River system.

This is a significant problem, he said, for every community and every agricultural operation in the Milk River basin that uses that water.

Construction on the diversion and conveyance work started early last century to provide water to irrigators in the Milk River Valley, although it also provides municipal water to Havre, Chinook and Harlem.

The system regularly provides half or more of the water that runs through the Milk River, which often dried up in the fall before the diversion was built.

In drought years, 80 percent to 90 percent of the water in the Milk River can come from the diversion.

An effort started more than 20 years ago to raise awareness of the need to rehabilitate the system, which is primarily funded by users — mostly the irrigators — and has been patched together for decades.

The working group was created in 2003, to find funding and push forward plans to rehabilitate the system

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., in the U.S. House and Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., in the Senate have introduced bills to reverse the percentage share of the costs of the system. The users now pay for about 75 percent of the expenses and the federal government pays about 25 percent.

The bills would switch that so the federal government covers about 75 percent of the costs.


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