Havre Daily News: St. Mary working group approves ability-to-pay study

The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group met Thursday and decided to use state funds they received to pay for an ability-to-pay study to be conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation in preparation for legislation that may change the cost share of repairs to the St. Mary Diversion Dam.

Under the current arrangement irrigators are requires to pay 74 percent of the costs of repair and maintenance for the structure with the federal government paying the remainder.

Legislation is being worked on by the members of Montana’s congressional delegation to change that cost share to a more-realistic model, and part of that legislation requires a study on the area’s ability to pay.

Phillips County Extension Agent and St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group Co-Chair Marko Manoukian said the study would be performed by the Bureau of Reclamation, will cost $100,000 and will take six to nine months.

Manoukian said it would be a good idea to get a head start on this just to head off future problems for this legislation and the diversion down the road.

“I don’t want to be having the same discussion a year from now about cost allocation and appropriation,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont., who, along with Sen. Steve Daies, R-Mont., and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., appeared at the meeting remotely, said this was a good move and thanked the group for their swiftness.

He said it continues their legacy of working fast and effectively, just like they did during last year’s catastrophic failure of the Drop 5 which was fixed very quickly.

“It really demonstrates what can be done when people work together. But the fact is our work is not done,” he said.

He said the system needs rehabilitation badly and he and his team are spearheading the legislation that will make it more affordable.

Tester said he believes the new presidential administration understands the importance of rural water projects, and an ability-to-pay study will only help the bill going forward.

“I think (the study) will come back a hell of a lot better then 75 percent, it may come back as zero,” he said.

He said with the approval of the group the bill will be dropped next week, approval that was given unanimously.

Tester said he intends to try and put the cost share change in the COVID-19 relief package currently in the Senate, but he didn’t want people to get their hopes up, as it is a bit of a long shot.

He also said he will put it in any infrastructure bill that materializes this year, if it does.

Rosendale, who attempted unsuccessfully to put the cost-share in the relief package when it was in the House, said he thinks it’s unlikely that Tester will manage, but certainly won’t complain if he does.

“If he can make that happen, God bless him we’ll certainly support it,” he said.

He, like Tester, stressed the importance of projects like this to Montana.

“Land is king and water is queen,” he said. “If you don’t have both, the kingdom is not going to run very well.”

He said it is unlikely that this bill will be able to see serious progress made until next month however, when regular order is reestablished in Congress.

He said for the time being House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is attempting to expedite urgent legislation by bypassing the committee process and sending bills right to the floor.

Rosendale spent the reminder of his time criticizing Pelosi for what he considers as heavy-handed approach to legislation and, for a number of other issues, many unrelated to the matter, including efforts to pass the Equality Act which he considered radical.

“I’m sorry if that sounds partisan, but I’m just stating the facts,” he said.

Daines echoed his colleagues’ sentiments on the group’s performance this past year, and the importance of the project.

Daines said he was doubtful Tester will be able to get the cost-share change into the relief package but said it’s worth trying anyway.

“That won’t achieve an outcome, but it might help with visibility,” he said.

He said when the bill does make it to committee he suspects it will not be as difficult a fight at many other pieces of legislation.

“There is a bipartisan appetite to get this done,” he said.

He said the group’s decision to fund the ability-to-pay study will help sell the legislation by providing an objective way to measure a reasonable cost share.

“I think that will be money well spent,” he said.

The group also voted unanimously to stay an active partner of the Montana Water Association, which working group members Manoukian and Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick are part of.

“They do a lot of work at the Legislature, they’re an asset for us and for national water as well,” Manoukian said.

The group also discussed whether to put out a request for local government contributions, but decided to postpone that conversation, in part due to the fact that said governments may need to reevaluate their estimated revenue due to the recent cancellation the of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Bluntly, the loss of the Keystone has eaten into local government revenue, he said, so I’m not sure we’ll put out the call for contribution just yet.

He said the group might consider a meeting of a finance committee in the interim to discuss the matter further.

The group also took time to applaud the efforts of HDR Engineering Project Engineer Stan Schweissing, who Patrick described as the brain behind the St. Mary repairs last year.

Manoukian said earlier in the meeting that the structures taking the place of the previous Drop 5 and Drop 2 in the diversion are excellent, even if they originated from a tragedy.

“Out of the rubble of hundred year-old structures, we got world-class structures,” he said.