Bill to help Kinsey, Sidney water users passed out of committee

Sen. Steve Daines, who is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has been successful in passing an issue out of that committee to keep power costs for the Kinsey Irrigation and Sidney Water Users districts at an affordable rate.

The two groups have been part of the Pick Sloan power group for going on eight decades, but in 2017 received a notice from the Bureau of Reclamation that the agency would not renew their contracts.

Jack Connor, an administrative officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, said an audit determined that neither of the two programs had been eligible for Pick Sloan power. 

“The Sidney project was constructed by Montana in 1938 and financed by a loan and grant from the Federal Public Works Administration,” he said. “Back in those days, it sounded to me like Reclamation thought it met the conditions because it was financed by us, but they later determined that was an error, because the project is not and has never been a federal project. It required a federal nexus to receive power use power rates.”

Similarly, Kinsey was built in 1937 by the Farm Security Administration, Conner said.

“It was briefly a Pick Sloan Missouri Basin Program Unit, but in 1945, the Kinsey project purchased all the project facilities, and it was basically a non-federal project at that point,” he said.

However, Raymond Bell, president of Sidney Water Users, said that farmers whose lands were being flooded by the creation of various dams in the region were to be given a high priority in Pick Sloan when it was set up in 1944.

“The trade-off was that if the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers eat up all the farmland putting in these dams, the tradeoff was to give the farmers this reasonable irrigation power, or Pick-Sloan Power,” he explained.

The arrangement was laid out by Congress in the 1944 Flood Plain Acts and irrigation districts like Sidney Water Users, Kinsey Irrigation, and the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project have been receiving low-cost power under the Pick Sloan umbrella ever since.

Lower Yellowstone is still receiving power from the group, since it has a dam that is owned by the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers at Glendive, but it is being asked to pay higher rates. The jump in rates is a separate issue that’s also being worked on with Montana’s Congressional delegation. 

Bell said Bureau officials told Sidney Water Users and Kinsey as well that it would take a new act of Congress to keep the irrigation districts in the power group past 2020. Otherwise, the contracts will expire. If that happens, the districts are likely to face an astronomical rate increase for power.

“Passage of this bill will have no negative impact on any other user of Pick Sloan power,” Daines said during testimony about his bill in committee. “(The irrigation districts) have had use of this power for more than 70 years.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte has also introduced companion legislation in the House regarding the matter, which is of vital importance to about 85 farming families in the Miles City area, who are part of Kinsey Irrigation, and 45 families who are part of Sidney Water Users.

The latter serves 4,800 acres of cropland. About half of those acres are dedicated each year, depending on crop rotations, to raising sugar beets for Sidney Sugars.

“Without the SWU and their high-quality crop, the factory could be forced to close, due to lack of sugar beet acres,” Agricultural Manager Duane Peters and General Manager David Garland wrote to Montana’s Congressional Delegation in a letter of support for the legislation. “This results in hundreds of employees losing their jobs, and forcing them to move from Sidney.”

Bell said Sidney Water Users and Kinsey have been fighting the issue for two years now, trying to stay in the power group.

“This has been a big expense for us,” he added. “We have hired a lobbyist group in D.C. that is helping us with the battle. Hopefully this will get passed before the end of next year.”