Bitterroot Irrigation District looks for funding to replace aged infrastructure



The Bitterroot Irrigation District in Ravalli county is grappling with ways on how to replace crumbling infrastructure near Lake Como. BRID wants to replace a 106-year-old siphon and the bridge it rests on.

The siphon carries water from the lake on the west side, across the Bitterroot River, to irrigators on the valley’s east side. The 72-mile canal extends from Lake Como to Eagle Watch near Florence.

Sen. Jon Tester announced last week that BRID, often known as the Big Ditch, would receive a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But there’s still a long way to go to fund the $2.7-million project. For the 1,400 irrigators, it will also mean an increase in irrigation fees.

From spring to late summer, Siphon 1 funnels water to irrigate 16,000 acres. But every spring, the Big Ditch crosses its fingers that high water won’t wash it out.

“This is probably our Achilles heel for the Big Ditch,” said BRID manager John Crowley.

In 1974, it did wash out. It cut the irrigation season short, and farmers lost crops.

NBC Montana met Crowley at the siphon, where he walked the catwalk spanning the Bitterroot River. Crowley worries about the safety of people on the river, and about the farmers’ livelihood.

“This siphon is really vulnerable because if you get too much on there,” he said, “there’s a chance it will collapse again like it did in ’74.”

The district has $300,000 of its own money set aside for the project. It also applied for a $125,000 state grant. But it would borrow the majority of the money — $1.7 million.

The legislature will decide on the funding package in April. Irrigators will see rate hikes. The larger the landowner, the more they will pay.

Matt Pendergast is a rancher from Lone Rock. NBC Montana talked to Pendergast, who also serves on the BRID board of trustees, as he checked his cows. It’s the middle of calving season for Pendergast.

The Big Ditch is a vital lifeline for his livestock and crops. He says ranchers are taking a chance by not replacing the old siphon. He can’t afford to lose an irrigation season.

“When you look at that possibility and the possibility of having to sell your cattle,” he said, “it motivates us to try and solve this problem.”

Meantime, crews are busy getting ready for irrigation season. Crews on Wednesday were lining a section of the canal in the Skalkaho area with a high-tech fiber to prevent leakage.

The water will be turned on for irrigators in April.