Havre Daily News: Tester: St. Mary Diversion funding 'massive'

by Tim Leeds

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in an interview with Havre Daily News that getting $100 million in funding that likely will go to the St. Mary Diversion is a really big deal.

“It will be massive,” he said. “… It’s a big deal. The most important part, really, is the predictability it provides for agriculture and municipalities.”

Tester, one of the senators who crafted the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has passed Congress and been signed into law by President Joe Biden, also said it has been a long time coming.

“We’ve been talking about this stuff for 15, 20, 25 years, ” he said. ” … Folks up and down the Milk have been fighting for so long; some of them have passed away, in fact, and aren’t going to be here to see this, which is unfortunate.”

Averting potential disaster

Local irigators and residents have been warning for more than two decades the diversion and conveyance system, which provides much of the water in the Milk River each year, was on the verge of collapse after many decades of repairs and band-aiding the system together to keep it running.

The system, part of the Milk River Project irrigation system, was one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after the bureau was created in 1902, wth the project authorized in 1903.

It comprises Sherburne Dam, which stores water in Lake Sherburne on Swift Current Creek, a dike that diverts the water into St. Mary River, the diversion dam the new bill references that diverts water into the conveyance works, then 29 miles of canals, gigantic metal siphons and the concrete drop structures that drop the water into the North Fork of the Milk River. Most of the system is on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The system took years to complete, often using heavy equipment drawn by teams of horses. Much of the conveyance works was completed by 1915.

The water flows through the North Fork of the Milk into Canada before returning to Montana and eventually flowing into the Missouri River near Nashua below Fort Peck Reservoir. It provides water for irrigators in the Milk River Valley as well as municipal water for communities along the river including Havre, Chinook and Harlem as well as providing water to the northern part of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

The project was authorized as an irrigation system with funding for its operation and maintenance primarily coming from the irrigators using it.

As repair costs rose, the system was patched together for decades, and, more than 20 years ago, users began to warn that if major rehabilitation wasn’t done soon, the system would fail, which would be catastrophic to the region.

Tester noted that while talking about the importance of the $100 million in funding.

“It’s important … for municipalities and agriculture along the Milk River drainage,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that division a couple of hundred miles away, the Milk would be running dry six out of 10 years.”

With the push for rehabilitation, the state created a St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group in 2003 and the group has been working with Montana’s congressional delegation and federal officials to find some way to come up with the funds to fix the diversion and conveyance works before catastrophic failure, a rehabilitation with an estimated total cost in today’s dollars of between $200 million and $225 million.

And the catastrophic failure hit in the spring of last year, when the last drop structure, concrete structures that channel the diverted water into the North Fork of the Milk, collapsed during a storm and the diversion had to be shut down.

Entities including Reclamation, the Milk River Joint Board of Control and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation worked to find funding – without a matching cost requirement due to the construction being designated emergency work – and begin construction for a full replacement of the failed structure and another drop structure on which work had been planned, along with some other work on the drop structure system. Construction crews arrived on site June 16 to begin required repairs and it was completed and the diversion began running again last fall.

Funding finally here for rehabilitation

And after 20 years of actively pushing for federal funding to rehabilitate the diversion, the project has some funding.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Tester said. “I was very happy that we were able to get this addressed when we set up the infrastructure bill.”

And he said the impact for residents in the Milk River Valley is major.

“This is huge for agriculture on the Northern Tier. These guys ain’t rolling in the dough in the best of situations, and without having to have this cost share they will get a predictability in water that they haven’t had for a long time,” he said. “And for the municipailities for like, say the town of Havre, or pick a town along the Milk, it’s going to allow Havre to grow for the next 100 years in a way they wouldn’t have been able to grow without this predictability.”

He said it also will provide a predictability that will help sustain and grow recreation and world-class fishing and hunting in the region.

“It’s a big deal,” Tester said.

He said that other projects that meet the criteria in the infrastructure bill also could apply for the funding, any project built by 1915 that has experienced a critical failure in the last two years.

Tester said the senators had the St. Mary Diversion in mind when they set the criteria.

“Milk River is absolutely one of the projects,” he said. “I think they’ve got a pretty good chance to get a pretty good chance of (getting funding).”

And he added that the fact that no match is required makes a major difference. While future funding to finish the rehabilitation may need a match, this funding can move forward immediately without one.

“We have had an ongoing fight because the cost share dollars has really been an inhibitor to getting the project done, and look, I think going forward it still will be a challenge, but for these dollars we are in good shape,” he said.

Tester said while the $100 million is not enough for a full rehabilitation of the system, it will move things forward and likely help with future funding.

“This is going to get us a long ways towards that 200, 225 million dollar rehab,” he said, adding, “Money tends to attract money. … The fact is is that I think there’s going to be other dollars coming this way as demand for those dollars becomes apparent.”

Tester said he hopes that work can start as soon as possible, noting that Biden’s coordinator for the infrastructure plan is former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has some experience in fixing infrastructure with dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“So, we will be yanking his chain, and we’ll be yanking the chain of the Bureau of Rec to get this money out the door, and anybody else we can get to listen,” he said. “My goal is, when the snow goes off, there will be money there. All the I’s will be dotted, T’s will be crossed and there will be money there to start the repair and rehab and rebuilding.”

Money also could go to 4 for 2

And, Tester said, money for Montana is in the infrastructure bill that could help the 4 for 2 project move forward.

That proposal started in 2001 when then-Sen. Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow passed a bill requiring Montana Department of Transportation to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana.

The first step came with a study of the highway between Havre and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, funded with a federal allocation pushed through by former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

That study came back with a Federal Highway Administration recommendation for an improved two-lane instead of a four-lane, and, after saying he would follow state law and recommend a four-lane from the start of the project, the MDT director at the time, Dave Galt, reversed his position and also recommended an improved two-lane.

Work is still underway on the improved two-lane project, with the upgrades between Havre and Chinook essentially completed this fall.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer started another tactic, saying if Montana upgraded the highway from Culbertson to the North Dakota border so it connected to U.S. 2 in North Dakota, which already is expanded to a four-lane configuration, it would make sense to continue widening the highway farther and farther west.

The first part of that project, upgrading two lanes from Bainville to the state border, is complete, and the state is awaiting funding to add another two lanes to complete a four-lane configuration to the town, then start working to expand it to Culbertson.

Tester said, because of the amount of highways and bridges in the country it was virtually impossible to set requirements that would have favored that project, but the infrastructure bill includes $3 billion for roads and bridges in Montana. How that is used is up to MDT, he said.

“If, in fact, you could sell that to (the department of transportation), they can use that money for 4 for 2,” he said. “If folks on the Hi-Line made the pitch to (the department), they’re going to make the call on where they go with that funding.”