BOR declares emergency funding for St. Mary Diversion repairs

With repairs ongoing on parts of the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works that supplies much of the water in the Milk River, the water users found out they are getting a break on the repairs.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., announced Wednesday that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operation of the system, has determined the repairs qualify as emergency work, reducing the cost to the users.

Tester and Daines each had sent letters requesting the designation.

The system is part of the Milk River Project irrigation system and normally has 75 percent of the cost going to users, primarily the irrigators in the Milk River Valley in north-central Montana.

Jennifer Patrick, project manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control, said in an email Wednesday that the designation will be a great help.

The designation will allow 35 percent of the total project to repair Drop 2 and Drop 5 to be federally funded before running through the current operation and maintenance contracts allocations, Patrick said. The cost-share split becomes a 51.93 percent from BOR and 48.07 percent from project beneficiaries.

“This was an extremely beneficial decision for the project beneficiaries and stakeholders,” Patrick said. “I cannot thank everyone involved in pushing this so quickly. The state of Montana and (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) has been fully engaged since day one and continues to stay committed to helping the joint board come up with a complete funding package.

“I think I could hire a full-time assistant just to write thank you letters, we have had some amazing support to date,” Patrick added.

The members of Montana’s congressional delegation all praised the decision.

“This is a positive step forward, and I’m glad Commissioner Berman listened to my call and worked with the state and the Milk River Joint Board of Control to reduce the cost share burden on irrigators for these repairs,” Tester said. “But it’s more important than ever that we push forward to pass my legislation to make sure all the necessary investments are made for folks in Eastern Montana and I will keep working with Reclamation to make sure the rehabilitation of the Milk River Project doesn’t leave irrigators holding the check.”

“I’m glad the administration responded to the St. Mary’s Joint Board and my request to make this decision and do everything in their power to lessen the burden on water-users,” Daines said. “The St. Mary’s Milk River Project is the life-line of the Hi-Line and reconstruction is critical for rural jobs, ag operations and water supply. There’s more work to be done, but I won’t stop fighting for the resources needed to repair this system for Montanans.”

“Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but we have more work to do,” Rep. Greg Gianforte said. “I’ll continue working with the Joint Board, the Trump administration, and my colleagues in the House to fix the cost share for the project to shift the burden from Montana water users to the federal government.”

Daines and Gianforte both are candidates in this fall’s election.

Daines faces Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Green Party candidate Wendie Fredrickson in his race to retain his seat, and Gianforte is running for governor and faces Democratic Lt. Gov. and Co-Chair of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group Mike Cooney and and Green Party candidate Robert Barb and Libertarian candidate Lyman Bishop in the general election.

Patrick said construction crews have been delayed by rain and the Independence Day holiday, but are on site.

“We are continuing the dewatering efforts at Drop 5 and focusing most of the efforts on Drop 2,” she said in the email. “They are working to get to grade and the hope is to start forming end of the week and maybe seeing some sort of concrete/flowable fill on Drop 2 next week.”

The diversion and conveyance works are one of the first projects BOR was authorized to construct and administer when it was created at the start of the last century.

Water is stored at Lake Sherburne on Swift Current Creek on the edge of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, then diverted into the conveyance works.

That 29-mile system of canals, dikes and huge metal siphons transports the water over the the Hudson Bay-Missouri River drainage divide, then down five concrete drop structures into the North Fork of the Milk River. It then flows into Canada before re-entering Montana.

Plans were in place to repair Drop 2 when the bottom drop structure, Drop 5, suffered catastrophic failure May 17.

Patrick said the work continues on the border crossing and material sourcing up in the area. 

“With the recent Blackfeet Tribal 14-day quarantine order, I have had many questions of how this is changing the project timelines,” she said. “We are considered to be essential at this time, but we will continue to be mindful of the tribe’s quarantine order and restrictions.  

“Our tribal partners have been great to work with, and we want that to continue,” Patrick added. “Once this threats starter to decrease, we will work on a tour or individual tours of the site for the working group or interested parties. If for any reason you plan to come to the site, we just ask that you make us aware of it so we can step through the new processes we have outlined for visitors.”