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Commission, board of control discuss St. Mary Diversion fixes


Last updated 6/5/2020 at 11:38am

Hill County Commission held a meeting with the Milk River Joint Board of Control Thursday to hear an update about the concrete drop structure on the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works that washed out and collapsed May 17.

The Drop 5 structure, near the end of the more-than-100-year-old St. Mary Diversion, collapsed after decades of Milk River water users warning that a catostrophic failure would likely occure.

A state working group was formed in 2003 to try to make plans and find funding to rehabilitate the structure, which is still in the works in Congress.

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said the commission has received several calls from people wanting to buy water out of the Beaver Creek Reservoir.

They decided instead of selling more water from that source, he said, they would rather join hands with the situation that’s going on with the St. Mary Diversion to see how they can work with the operation of Fresno Reservoir in releasing water, saving water in Beaver Creek to provide as much water to the irrigators that they can do, as well as sustain flow throughout the winter for the cities.

“It’s just trying to develop a working relationship,” he said. “... We have about 1,500 acre-feet of water (in Beaver Creek Reservoir) that’s spoken for by irrigators right now and there’s approximately 1,800 acre-feet of water remaining.”

He said the reserve level needs to be kept in the reservoir.

He said the commission is trying not to go less than four feet below the spillway. That gives them a little bit of time to react if heavy rain occurs.

Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jenn Patrick said the board was having a meeting Thursday afternoon to make decisions on a contractor for the St. Mary Diversion.

She said the project already has an engineer staffed which is HDR engineering.

“The biggest thing right now is the permitting, the tribe is closed until June 30. They’ve been wonderful trying to go in and help us and stuff like that, but that’s a huge hurdle with the COVID-19 — you need all the environmental permits and everything because we are right there in the middle of Blackfeet Nation,” she said. “... We’re hoping next week to sign the contract next week, we have an emergency contract, and move forward.”

She said plans and engineering were all completed for the Drop 2 structure higher up on the conveyance works, and she would have thought Drop 2 would have collapsed before Drop 5.

Drop 5 is down the hill, she said, but, Drop 2 has a hole that all of them could crawl into it, which needs to be addressed.

There are also Drop 1, 3 and 4 structures, she said, adding that 3 and 4 have had work done on them — they look pretty good.

Two interim solutions are on the table, Patrick said. One would be piping and one would be running water from Drop 4 down.

“Does it save the irrigation season? Yeah, if you get it done by tomorrow,” she said. “... Potentially if you get through permitting and everything you could save part of the irrigation season. What we are looking for is next year.”

The 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 6 out of 10 years.

Because of the collapse, it has given an opportunity to go fix stuff and assess, Patrick said.

“It gives us time to assess and say, ‘Hey, we have these failing siphons in little districts, let’s get someone in and let’s get someone to fix those also,” she said. “We’re talking about those things, but there are two interim solutions on the table to see if we can get water going.”

Right now, she said, they are looking at possibly being out of water for irrigation by mid-July.

The cities and the towns, she said, will have water under a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Montana Area Office Bureau of Reclamation Supervisory Civil Engineer Clayton Jordan said Fresno Reservoir going into winter storage has 15,000 acre-feet.

“We can always be hopeful for rain in June and July,” Patrick said. “... The thing we’ll decide on is we’d love it if the contract would be done by August. This isn’t a huge project it’s just where it’s located — it’s very remote.”

Right now, she said, the St. Mary Diversion is completely dry. Water has not been diverted into the system since the drop structure collapsed.

She said the board is fixing both Drops 2 and 5, regardless.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Steve Daines R-Mont., and Rep. Greg Gianforter R-Mont., have been 100 percent supporting the funding to get the St. Mary Diversion fixed, she said.

The project is currently funded 75 percent by the irrigators and 25 percent by the federal government.

The senators and congressman are looking to flip that cost share to where the irrigators pay 25 percent and the federal government pays 75 percent.

She said $10 million is available at the state level through a grant and also $40 million in spending.

In moving forward with the project, Peterson said, the commission wants to be wherever they can to help.

Patrick said hopefully this is also a good step moving forward with the partnership with the Blackfeet Tribe on everything.

“This isn’t the first or the last project that is going to happen up there and we don’t go up there and just go throw the 1890 Canal Act on the table and say well we can go through here. Do this and we’re doing it,” she said. “That’s not our plan, hope or anything. We’re all in this together.”

A follow-up meeting is being planned between the commission and the Milk River Joint Board of Control on continuous updates.


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