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Work starting on St. Mary Diversion, continuing in Congress


Last updated 6/26/2020 at 12:09pm

Construction began Monday on the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works that suffered a catastrophic failure from a structure that collapsed in May.

Meanwhile, work progresses in Congress to change the funding for the project and move forward on a complete rehabilitation of the century-old system, part of the Milk River Project that provides irrigation water in the river.

Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jenn Patrick said no real updates or decisions points have been made beyond the start of the construction as yet.

Bureau of Reclamation Montana Area Manager Steve Davies said BOR also does not have any updates at this point. 

St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works has been shut down since Drop 5, at the end of the 29-mile system, washed out and collapsed May 17.

A joint press release by the Bureau of Reclamation and Milk River Joint Board of Control June 10 said that they and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would immediately replace the Drop 5 structure as well Drop 2.

Drop 2, the release says, is another high-risk drop structure on which construction is to be completed by late this summer. Plans to replace that structure, one of the concrete structures that drops water downslope at the end of its journey into the North Fork of the Milk River, were in place before Drop 5 collapsed.

Fresno and Nelson reservoirs had above-average storage levels and will be used to provide continued irrigation deliveries into July, it said.

The release said water shortages in the communities below Fresno Dam that use the Milk River for their municipal water supply — including Havre, Chinook and Harlem — are not expected.

Rep. Greg Gianforte provided an update Thursday on the St. Mary Reinvestment Act during a House of Representatives Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.

“The Milk River project is the most important infrastructure project in Montana,” he said. “It’s a source for clean water for Montanans along our Hi-Line and for irrigation for (a large number of farms,) but the 100-year-old project is in disrepair and getting worse.”

Gianforte in the House and Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., are sponsors of a bill that would shift the funding formula for the project. Now, users of the system pay about 75 percent of costs and the federal government pays 25 percent. St. Mary Reinvestment Act would essentially reverse that.

The recent failure of Drop 5 shut down the project, Gianforte said. He said the federal government should step up and “reduce the burden the hard-working Montanans bear” for this project’s repair and maintenance.

Gianforte is not running to remain in Congress, instead running for Montana governor. He faces Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Green Party Robert Barb and Libertarian candidate Lyman Bishop in the general election.

The Milk River project was originally built by the Bureau of Reclamation to provide supplemental irrigation water along the Milk River, but has evolved into a multi-use project which provides water for municipalities, recreational enthusiasts and wildlife habitats, Gianforte added.

“The critical water supply accounts for 70 percent of the average Milk River flows during the irrigation season and as a high 95 percent during severe drought when natural flows in the Milk River often go to zero,” Gianforte said. “The project also provides water for the Blackfeet Nation, Fort Belknap Indian Community and numerous towns along the Hi-Line, which spans the entire northern tier of  Montana.”

“Since I was first elected into Congress I’ve consistently stated this is the most important infrastructure in the state in need of repair. Many components of the St. Mary’s project has exceeded the design life that are in dire need of repair and replacement,” he added.

The funding primarily by the water users has not been enough for a major overhaul of the more-than-100-year-old diversion, and it has been Band-Aided together with repairs for decades.

Milk River water users, warning of a catastrophic 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.

Gianforte said the project users cannot afford this 75 percent particularly expansion of the uses of the water since inception of the project.

“My bill, the St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act, will increase federal cost share and reduce the water user share to 25 percent — making it similar to BOR projects,” he said. “... As of the beginning of March, I was in front of the House Transportation Committee advocating for much-needed repairs for this project.”

He said he’ll continue to push for funding for the whole project, but right now Drop 5, Drop 2 and the Diversion need to be fixed immediately.

His office has been working with BOR and his Senate colleagues, he said, to focus their bill on these immediate concerns.

“The cost share still needs to be addressed, but there’s hope along the Hi-Line,” Gianforte said.

  Daines sent a letter Thursday sent a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asking for consideration and passage of the St. Mary Reinvestment Act. 

“The St. Mary Milk River project has been coined the life-line of the Hi-Line, supplying up to 90 percent of water for the Milk River Basin during a dry year and providing food for over one million people,” Daines said in the letter. “Reliable water infrastructure is critical for rural economies, recreation, wildlife habitat and irrigation. I ask for your help in securing quick consideration and passage of this important Montana priority.” 

Daines is running to retain his seat and faces Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who cannot run for re-election to that seat due to term limits, and Green Party candidate Wendie Fredrickson in the general election.

Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont., Press Secretary Roy Loewenstein said Sen. Tester is working with irrigators and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on a path forward to passage.


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