Havre Daily News: First round of Milk River Project funding announced

A project started more than two decades ago to rebuild what has been called “The Lifeline of the Hi-Line” is getting some movement.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced Friday that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the first round of funding for the Milk River Project, for which Tester secured up to $100 million in his bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now law.

“I’m proud to announce the first round of funding for the Milk River Project from our infrastructure bill is now on its way to the communities that have needed this critical irrigation upgrade for decades,” Tester said. “With these dollars finally flowing to the farms, towns and tribes in northern Montana that need them, shovels can start hitting the dirt to modernize the water infrastructure our state needs to keep our economy on its feet, and I’ll keep pushing Reclamation and the Biden administration to ensure these resources continue heading to the right place.”

The first round of funding will be $2.5 million to be used for planning and project design in 2022.

The funding will go to repair and rehabilitation of the St. Mary Diversion and Water Conveyance System, one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after its creation in 1902, with the project authorized in 1903.

The system, built to provide water for irrigation, often provides half or more of the water that flows through the Milk River each year, as much as 90 percent in some drought years. Before it was built, the river dried up in the fall of 6 of 10 years.

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 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.

That failure came in May 2020 when Drop 5 all but disintegrated, which prompted organizations at the local, state and federal levels, to spend the next few months getting the drop repaired relying on emergency funding.

The project was considered a massive success due to the short time in which it was completed, an accomplishment credited to effective communication and coordination between the organizations involved.

However, while the repair project was praised for its efficiency, it was clear that the diversion needed to be rehabilitated more comprehensively, a project with a final price tag between $200 million and $225 million.

The money Tester got in the infrastructure bill is to start that work.

The announcement follows Tester’s conversation last month with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, where Tester urged the agency to make the St. Mary’s diversion a top priority and get the resources out the door as quickly as possible.

Tester directly negotiated and wrote the provision of his legislation that will provide up to $100 million to rehabilitate the Milk River Project. He worked across the aisle for months to negotiate his bipartisan package with a group of five Republicans, four Democrats and the White House, and he was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to vote for it. The law is projected to create more than 800,000 American jobs and lower costs for businesses by making targeted investments that will strengthen the nation without raising taxes on working families.

Tester secured significant wins for Montana in the legislation, including $2.82 billion for Montana’s roads, highways and bridges; $2.5 billion to complete all authorized Indian water rights settlements; $1 billion to complete all authorized rural water projects through the Bureau of Reclamation; $42.45 billion for broadband deployment to low-connectivity areas across the country; and $3.37 billion to reduce wildfire risk nationwide, among others. Tester also worked to ensure that all iron, steel and construction materials used for these projects must be made in America.