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No firm decisions made on St. Mary Diversion repairs


Bureau of Reclamation Montana Area Manager Steve Davies said Friday a team went on site Wednesday to where a concrete drop structure on the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Work washed out and collapsed May 17 and looked holistically in terms of what options are available, for either a temporary or long-term fix.

“There’s still a lot of groundwork being laid to make decisions on whether there’s a temporary repair or a permanent repair of Drop structure number 5,” he said. 

He said BOR had been on site last week working with the Milk River Joint Board of Control, its engineering consulting firm HDR engineering, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation assessing everything in terms of options.

No decisions have been made yet, he said.

The 29-mile more-than-100-year-old system diverts water from the St. Mary River into the Milk River, where it provides water to irrigators and communities including Havre, Chinook and Harlem, as well as people who use the river and reservoirs for recreation.

The system provides much of the water that flows through the river, as much as 80 percent or 90 percent in drought years.

Before the diversion, part of the Milk River Project to provide irrigation water in the Milk River area, the river dried up by the fall of 6 of 10 years.

Davies said they are looking at options to see if they are technically feasible as well as how long might they take to construct.

“Still very fluid, going through options, looking at the constructibility and how that fits with water when we might be able to move water,” Davies said Friday. “So everything is on the table with no decisions — we’re working toward trying to decide here, possibly this next week, with the Joint Board of Control on the best option for them and for their irrigators.”

He said they have identified a couple of possible repairs, but that can impact scheduling and could take a long time just to get a temporary fix in.

That is being evaluated, he said, in terms of the costs of temporary repairs, how long they take and whether or not they can be done in time to move enough water to matter to the irrigators.

One of those temporary repairs could be bypassing the area of the failure and routing the canals around that area while simultaneously reconstructing the collapsed structure, he said.

They are looking to see if an option is available to move the water, diverting it around that area — that is what it would require, he said.

He said tremendous efforts are being put into trying to make decisions with what they  think they can do, how long it’s going to take, what it might cost and how soon might that provide any water to start moving again. 

“We’re trying to make all this information available for the Joint Board so they can make decisions as well — they are really difficult decisions,” Davies said. “... Essentially, providing this info to everyone that relies upon water from the Milk River with water rights.”

Fresno and Nelson Reservoirs are still full, he said, adding that no changes to water releases projected at those reservoirs unless timely rain occurs or a repair is able to be put in place. 

The irrigators are looking at running out of irrigation water about mid-July, he said.

At the start of the last century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations was created primarily to address water scarcity in the West. One of the first projects authorized for the BOR was the Milk River Project to provide irrigation water to Milk River Valley farmers and ranchers.

Using construction equipment often drawn by horses, the 29-mile system of dams, dykes, canals and 8-foot tall metal siphons that suck water over the Hudson Bay-Missouri River divide was completed, transferring water into the north fork of the Milk River which runs into Canada and then back down into Montana. The Milk River Project also includes Fresno Reservoir, Nelson Reservoir by Malta and other dams, dykes and reservoirs.

The project is set so users of the system pay for 75 percent of use, maintenance and repairs to the system. Patchwork repairs have been done to the system over the last several decades.

Milk River water users, warning of a catostrophic failure like what occurred May 17, began campaigning at the start of the last decade to find funding to rehabilitate the system to prevent catastrophic failure, which led to the state establishing the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group in 2003. The group has been working to plan and find funding for rehabilitation ever since.

Bills sponsored last year by the members of Montana’s congressional delegation to switch the funding ratio, so 75 percent is picked up by the federal government and 25 percent by the users, are pending in Congress.


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