Havre Weekly Chronicle: Senate passes Fort Belknap water compact with funding for St. Mary repairs

by Tim Leeds

Bill now goes to the House, Daines and Tester urge fast passage

The Senate acted quickly Thursday to unanimously pass a bill that includes funding for the system that provides much of the water running through the Milk River, money that could repair a catastrophic failure that shut the system down.

The Senate passed Thursday by unanimous consent the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act, sponsored by by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and cosponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

The bill settles the final Indian water compact in Montana, for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and also provides $275 million for the rehabilitation of the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works, which shut down Monday after two siphons that help take water diverted from the St. Mary River through a 29-mile system and deposit it in the Milk River.

“The siphon failure caused thousands of gallons of water to flood the surrounding area, leading to extensive damage to local businesses in that area, and will damage irrigation opportunities for 120,000 acres,” Tester said in remarks on the Senate floor before the bill was passed. “… It is a vital source of water for North Central Montana water users and to so many farmers that feed the world. The timing of this could not be worse, because there are literally hundreds of farmers and ranchers who are currently depending on the Milk River Project to irrigate their crops,” said Tester during his remarks on the Senate floor.

Daines praised the bill’s passage in the Senate in a statement released Thursday.

“This is a huge win for the tribe, farmers and ranchers and the entire state of Montana. As the final Indian water rights settlement in Montana, this bill will help provide clean drinking water to Montanans on the Hi-Line, invest in critical ag irrigation and help prevent costly litigation by codifying existing water rights,” he said in the statement. “Especially after the catastrophic siphon failure at St. Mary’s this week, we must get this done. After years of hard work with the Fort Belknap Indian Community and local leaders on the ground, I’m glad to see this come one step closer to becoming law.”

The members of the House, Reps. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., and Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., have companion bills in the House.

“A am glad the FBIC Water Rights Settlement Act has officially gotten one step closer to becoming law,” Rosendale posted Thursday on Twitter. “Now, let’s get this through the House, so critical water infrastructure can be developed for the people of north-central Montana.”

Zinke’s chief of staff, Heather Swift, said this morning that Zinke as a meeting scheduled next week with House leaders about the possibility of moving the bill quickly.

Montana Farmers Union also called for quick action.

“It is time for Montana leaders to put their political differences aside and pass this important legislation to provide critically important water that is the lifeline of the Hi-Line,” Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer said in a release. “The Milk River system provides water for crops and drinking water for tens of thousands of Montanans. Thank you, Sens. Tester and Daines. Now it is time for Congressmen Rosendale and Zinke to follow their lead in ensuring Montanans have the water they need for their crops and their families.”

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Montana Area Manager Ryan Newman said Tuesday the bureau was assessing the situation, including waiting for the area to dry up enough for detailed examination of the site — water already in the nine miles of canal before it got to the siphons still was flowing out of the breach Tuesday morning — to start assessing the path forward.

He said Tuesday it would be at least next week before BOR can plot a path forward, also saying enough water is in Fresno Reservoir that it should have no immediate impact on irrigators and the municipalities — Havre, Chinook and Harlem — that get their water from the Milk.

It will be shortened irrigation season this summer due to the break, Newman said.

A contract already has been awarded for work on the dam near Babb that diverts water to the Milk River. The $88 million project is funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Tester helped write and was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021.

That project has nothing to do with the conveyance works including the siphons, but only works on the diversion dam including methods to held the native bull trout, listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, get upstream past the dam for spawning.

The joint press release Thursday from the officers of Tester and Daines said the senators successfully passed the FBIC Water Compact through the Senate earlier this Congress as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act , but Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republicans stripped it from the final package.

“I want to be clear: the House needs to pass this bill,” Tester said in his remarks on the Senate floor Thursday. “The House needs to put aside politics and pass this bill. Farmers’ operations that have been generational in this region’s livelihood are on the line. Water for municipalities is on the line. This is no time to play politics. The siphon bursts that we saw earlier this week have left Montana families reeling. Congress can do its job. The Senate will do its job. It’s time for the House to act responsibly too. So let’s get this done so we can repair the Milk River Project and give water users in North Central Montana the certainty and predictability they need to survive.”

The office of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., had not responded to a question from Havre Weekly Chronicle about scheduling the bill on the House floor by the time this article was posted.