Havre Weekly Chronicle: Tester Calls on Biden Administration to Include Milk River Diversion repairs in funding package

by Tim Leeds

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Tuesday that he made another request for assistance in dealing with Monday’s catastrophic failure of the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works that provides much of the water in the Milk River each year.

Taster said in a press release that he called on President Joe Biden Tuesday to include the Milk River Project in his administration’s domestic supplemental package, which would make federal funding available to assist in the reconstruction of the St. Mary’s canal.

“While it is too early to know the overall effect this failure will have on irrigation, it is clear that this catastrophic failure will harm the farmers and ranchers that rely on the Milk River Project,” a release said Tester wrote in a letter to Biden. “Without that ability to convey water through the St. Mary’s canal, the irrigation season will end much earlier than anticipated.”

The diversion and conveyance works, part of the Milk River Project, diverts water from the St. Mary River near Babb and carries it along a 29-mile route, mostly across part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, through a series of canals, enormous metal siphons and concrete drop structures and releases it into the north fork of the Milk River.

The system typically provides about 40 percent to 60 percent of the water that flows through the Milk River and in drought years supplies 90 percent or more of the water in the river. Before it was built, the Milk dried up by the fall in about 6 of 10 years.

It provides water for more than 120,000 acres of irrigated land and also provides municipal water for Havre, Chinook and Harlem and recreation opportunities on the river and in reservoirs like Fresno west of Havre and Nelson northeast of Malta.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the Milk River Project irrigation system, reported Monday that a staff members found at about 8:45 a.m. a siphon about nine miles into the system had burst. As water softened and eroded the ground, the second siphon in the double-barrel system also breached.

Tester’s release Tuesday said the senator’s letter also called on the Biden administration to communicate directly with, and provide support to, tribal leaders on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where the incident occurred.

“The cost will be far too great for the local communities to meet the current cost-share requirements. Furthermore, this will not be a simple project to design and construct,” Tester wrote. “As such, it is critically important that resources are made available to begin this process without delay.”

After the first siphon burst Monday, Tester called on the Biden Administration, sending a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to provide immediate support for the local community, small businesses, and irrigators impacted by the failure, which caused thousands of gallons of water to flood the surrounding area.

The release said the siphon burst caused extensive damage to local businesses, and will impact vital irrigation to farmland in the surrounding area.

BOR Montana Area Manager Ryan Newman said in an interview Tuesday that Fresno Reservoir is near full and municipalities and irrigators should see no immediate impact from the diversion being shut down, although the irrigation season will likely be shortened.

He said BOR is working to assess the situation, and is waiting for the area where the siphon burst to dry up some so more detailed investigations can be done, to assess what the bureau’s path forward will be to deal with the system’s failure.