$52 million Milk River Project bill introduced

Once again, Montana’s congressional delegation is trying to rescue the crumbling Milk River Project, a critical irrigation artery for 18,000 Montanans along the Hi-Line.

U.S. Sen Jon Tester, a Democrat, reintroduced a bill last week to provide $52 million for Milk River Project irrigation repairs. The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Daines, compels the government to reconsider a funding formula that now requires locals to pay for 75% of the project’s estimated $200 million in repairs. In the House, Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, introduced a similar bill.

The water system is coming off an epic failure, which left the system without supplemental water during most of the 2020 growing season.

Milk River Project bills have been routinely introduced by Montana’s congressional delegation for more than a decade. The 2020 version didn’t make it out of committee in the House or Senate. What the bill needs is a committee vote and a chance to be folded into a larger piece of legislation.

Too many years, Marko Manoukian, of the Milk River Joint Board of Control, has watched the congressional clock run out in December without Milk legislation being added to a must-pass spending bill.

It is too soon to know if the irrigation bill would be a good fit to the infrastructure legislation sought by President Joe Biden.

“At all turns, for the last 15 years we’ve tried to find a home for this legislation,” Manoukian said. “It is hopeful that something is going to occur where this can kind of hit a fast track and pass the committee process as they look toward an infrastructure bill.”

Carved from the landscape using horses in the early 1900s, the irrigation project reroutes water from the St. Mary River near Glacier Park and funnels it into a series of pipes and canals that eventually pour into the Milk River drainage. In the upper reaches of the system, water rapidly descends for 29 miles, during which a series of chutes and pools are used to slow the stream.

In May 2020, the rushing water finally blew out key portions of the St. Mary diversion system. Water didn’t flow from the upper reaches of the project again until early October. It took roughly $8 million to repair the damaged sections, about half of which came from the community under terms that allowed locals to evenly split the bill with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But that funding split was set up by the crisis of the failed system, Manoukian said. Under normal terms, the community would have to pay for 75% of the repairs needed. The challenge of raising $175 million of the costs locally is akin to getting a river to run backward.