Federal agencies slow to respond to Montana irrigators' worries

by Tom Lutey

Farms along one of Montana’s largest irrigation projects could be hurting for water by mid-July without a permit to rebuild a Yellowstone River diversion dam.

For more than a century, members of the Lower Yellowstone Intake Project have piled boulders atop an old wooden weir in the Yellowstone River to keep water flowing into 55,000 farm acres from Savage to Sidney. The intake feeds 400 miles of canals before flowing back into the Yellowstone near the river’s confluence with the Missouri.

The rock piling has become a ritual as massive ice flows scour the boulders away in late winter when the Yellowstone’s ice cap breaks up.

This year, the rock piling is in doubt, said Jim Brower, Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager. The Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t issued a permit for the boulder stacking. Farms that grow everything from sugar beets to malt barley and soybeans on irrigated land are nervous.

“Local banks are issuing operating loans, and they’re saying, ‘hey, we won’t give the loans until we know there’s going to be water,'” Brower said.

The boulders go on top of the weir in July, as the Yellowstone River drops, making the rock work easier. It’s also the time of year when the water is most needed and hardest to come by. Without the rocks, it’s likely the water won’t flow into irrigation system.

The permit bubbled up in the U.S. Senate last week when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questioned U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez about whether the BOR and Army Corps were working on a permit for the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project.

The question completely caught Lopez and Army Corps representatives off guard, as they first continued to address a separate issue then sat silent for a few seconds before Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, grimaced and said water might return to the irrigation system by fall.

“I hope you guys know this, by fall the growing season is over,” Tester said. “So is there anything we can do? Talk to me, please. Without irrigation water, these guys could literally lose the farm.”

Lopez then said the Bureau of Reclamation was doing the best it could.

“We’re working with the Lower Yellowstone Board of Control to continue the permit for the rocking of that diversion weir to try and get water this season,” Lopez said. “Obviously, it’s not certain we’ll get there, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the farmers get some water.”

The agencies have been more focused on a project to save the pallid sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that biologists say need a path beyond the diversion weir so the fish can procreate.

Pallid sturgeon are an endangered species. A fish bypass and irrigation intake reconstruction estimated to cost $59 million has been on hold since last year because the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued, arguing that the bypass wouldn’t work.

The lawsuit has also held up the permitting for rock piling.

In February, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., asked the Army Corps of Engineers to make extending the permit for two years a priority.