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St. Mary working group discusses funding, drought conditions and water infrastructure


Last updated 7/30/2021 at 10:37am

Editor’s note: This version adds comments from the office of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group met Wednesday to discuss possible funding sources for improvements and repairs to the structure that provides water resources to northern Montana.

The St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works, part of the irrigation Milk River Project and one of the first projects Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build when it was created at the start of the last century, diverts water into the North Fork of the Milk River and supplies much — in drought years almost all — of the water flowing through the Milk River.

Irrigators pay most of the cost of operating and maintaining the system — at this point, about 75 percent of the cost — and it has been patched together for decades.

The working group was formed in 2003 after users of the Milk River warned that catastrophic failure was likely unless major repairs — much more than the irrigators could afford — were made.

That happened last spring when the last concrete drop structure on the 29-mile system of dams, dikes, canals, giant metal siphons and drop structures failed and had to be replaced.

The diversion was shut down over last summer until collaborative work got it re-opened in October.

Three major funding sources for the larger project of rehabilitating the system to prevent future failures like this were discussed at the meeting, including the American Rescue Plan, which includes a direct infusion of COVID-19 recovery funds to state, county and municipal governments as well as providing funds for competitive grants.

Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick said four separate applications have been made to the state in an attempt to fund the massive project.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, said the Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation is working overtime to process the $900 million worth of applications for projects like this.

Juras co-chairs the group with Montana State University Phillips County Extension Agent Marko Manoukian.

Juras said the department will provide its official recommendation on which projects to fund Aug. 15.

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson asked if there will be another round of competitive grants, as has been rumored for some time.

DNRC Resource Development Bureau Chief Autumn Coleman said there will be a second round but she doesn’t know when that will be.

Peterson also said the county has some ARPA funds left over and he was hoping some of that could go to the project, but he’s not sure whether or not they are allowed to do that.

The second possible source of funding lies in the infrastructure bill recently brought to the floor by the U.S. Senate, which has gained an increasing level bipartisan support in the past month.

In this bill is a request for a non-refundable $100 million to go toward the project, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont., money that would not need to be paid back.

A representative from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was at the meeting and said the senator supports that addition by Tester.

A representative of Daines said Thursday that the senator is the lone voice for Montana on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which wrote the portion of the bill dealing with water projects like St. Mary’s. Daines ensured during this process the $100 million for St. Mary’s was included.

Daines was one of the 32 Republican senators who voted Wednesday against bringing the bill to the floor for debate and to propose amendments.

A spokesperson for Daines said Thursday that when the Senate voted Wednesday, final bill text or details on how it’s going to be paid for were not available or public. 

“Senator Daines is fighting for Montana priorities to be included in this bill, as he successfully did in securing funding for St. Mary (Diversion and Conveyance Works rehabilitation) in committee. It is also essential that any final bill be fully paid for and not increase the deficit by one cent,” his spokesperson said. “The senator thinks it’s important to ensure there will be an opportunity to offer amendments to the package to make it stronger for Montana, including adding additional forest management reforms to prevent deadly wildfires and protect Montana families and communities from fire.”

Wade Jones of the Milk River Joint Board of Control thanked Tester’s office at Wednesday’s meeting for their work.

Jones said he’s not necessarily on board with everything in the the infrastructure bill, but it’s in the interest of the people of Montana that differences be set aside in favor of passing the bill.

“I maybe don’t like everything that is in the infrastructure bill, but I think it’s something we have to support and that everybody should support because it helps Montana … the diversion is a ticking time-bomb and if we can get the money for that it would be huge.”

The group also discussed a separate bill, introduced by Tester, Daines, and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., the St. Mary Reinvestment Act which would invest an additional $52 million into the project as well.

Patrick said the ability-to-pay study that accompanies the bill, one that would evaluate how much the region’s irrigators can realistically contribute to the continued maintenance of the diversion and whether the cost share of 75 percent from irrigators and 25 percent from the federal government should be changed, will be done in December.

Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson brought up some issues he sees at the federal level, including the lack of support for dams and reservoirs, things he’s hoping congress may be able to address.

Peterson said he understands that the government is focused on infrastructure at the moment, but if dams and reservoirs are not taken care of it will be a moot point from his perspective.

“If I don’t have the dam or reservoir coming to me I don’t need infrastructure,” he said.

He also said cities, especially smaller ones, are having a difficult time finding water treatment chemicals.

Peterson said Havre is able to produce a chlorine facsimile so the chlorine shortage isn’t hitting them quite as hard but it’s still hard to find suitable chemicals at the moment.

He said water infrastructure repair materials are also hard to get.

He said his department needed a specialized piece of 16-inch pipe to make repairs to a main recently and it was so hard to find he had to send someone to Helena to get the only one in the state he could find, and it cost $1,600.

“It’s getting to a point where even when we can do something we can’t afford to do anything,” he said.

Peterson said Congress needs to do something to get these situations under control.

Members of the working group provided updates on their organizations’ activities including Patrick, who said outflow from Nelson Reservoir has been shut off and Fresno Reservoir will be shut off around Aug. 3 it a chance to refill.

She said tribal agreements will ensure that Fort Belknap still gets the water it requires.

She said the Milk River hasn’t seen any natural flow since the beginning of July and the diversion has had to compensate for that lack of flow.

Overall, Patrick said, the situation isn’t as bad a last year when drop structures in the diversion were still in the process of being fixed, but it’s still a tough situation when it comes to water resources in the region.

Manoukian provided an update on the region’s ongoing drought and how bad things are for ag producers and irrigators.

Manoukian said 37 percent of the U.S. is in Drought 2 conditions or higher including the vast majority of the western U.S. and Montana.

He said this year’s grasshopper population explosion has gotten so bad in Montana that it’s getting a lot of attention in the news media across the U.S.

He said he’s seen fields so badly devastated by the insects that a U.S. Department of Agriculture Representative mistook a local spring wheat field that had been eaten as one that had been farmed.

Manoukian said spring wheat production is at its lowest level continent-wide since 1988, with North Dakota and Canada’s output cut in half and Montana well below half.

He said hay is also seeing a massive shortage nationwide and as a result as much as 300,000 head of cattle in the state will likely be sold between now and September.

He said experts he’s talked to say there’s just no water or forage for the animals.

Compounding these problems is the recent proliferation of blister beetles in the region, he said.

Manoukian said the beetles’ larvae eat grasshopper eggs so it’s not surprising they’re so prevalent this year, but all species of the insects are toxic to livestock, especially horses.

He said the beetles, even when dead, can sicken or kill animals that eat the hay insects often crawl around in.

Normally, the insects stick to alfalfa as their habitat of choice but their numbers have necessitated moving to all kinds of crops used for hay.

He said all of these factors have built up to make an extremely difficult year for irrigators and producers.

The next meeting of the working group will be Sept. 21 at 10 a.m. at Bear Paw Development Corp.


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