HELENA – As the Milk River rushed around a bend, it’s hard to fathom that the river responsible for flooding much of the Hi-Line this spring naturally runs dry more than half the time.
But this water means everything to the 1,200 people of Chinook. “It’s the lifeline of our town, it’s the lifeblood,” explain Chinook Mayor Chris Hanson. “Everybody’s aware that if we’re out, we’re out.”
The river has water between its banks because of the century-year-old Milk River Project and the problem, at least $180 million in upgrades are needed so the system doesn’t fail.
“We have to rely on the federal and state governments to get those extra dollars for infrastructure,” Hanson said.
What is the Milk River Project?
The project starts by diverting water from the St. Mary River near Glacier National Park, then the water is brought into Canada, connecting with the Milk River and then flows across the Hi-Line, providing water for more than 18,000 people in towns and close to 700 ranches and farms.
Most of the $180 million needed for improvements are for upgrades to systems known collectively as the St. Mary Facilities. The project begins at the Sherburne Dam, just outside the gates to the Many Glacier entrance of GNP.
The dams, headworks, river siphons, drop structures and coulee siphons all work together to make the project effective. These infrastructure pieces were authorized in 1903 by Department of Interior Secretary Ethan Allen Hitchcock.
The thought was to use federal funds to build reservoirs for storage, diversion structures and canals and dams to bring water to the land and then you could make it productive to grow food and fiber for the nation,” explained Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Water Management Bureau Chief Paul Azevedo.
Azevedo has spent much of his career on this project and described the systems as, “an amazing engineering feat done at the turn of the century. I mean, they did this with hand labor, horses and steam shovels.”
The lengthy list of repairs that are necessary includes work on the St. Mary Diversion Dam that has been estimated to cost $40 million alone.
“It’s probably the most costly project facing the irrigators, in part because of endangered species act issues associated around bull trout,” Davies said. “The price is beyond the affordability of the irrigators to pay that so they have loan options available to them, but even that’s very costly.”
But, one of the main projects Davies said the BOR is working on, is improving drop structure number two, which is part of a series of five structures that helps bring the water from the Hudson Bay water drainage to the Milk River drainage.
“We had actually designed and put out a solicitation for an award, but the costs came in at about $2.2 million so we didn’t award it,” Davies explained. “So now, the Milk River Joint Board of Control is pursuing this with an independent consultant to see if they can’t get the costs down.”
The Milk River Project, keeps getting patched up when it needs more than a band aid. Without this system, the Hi-Line wouldn’t have enough water to support itself.
Standing in Havre and watching the water flow through the Milk river, Azevedo explained that roughly 70% of that water actually originates from the St. Mary River. In dry years, that number increases to 90% to 95%.
“During the drought of 2017, by the end of July, there was no natural flow in the Milk River, it had dried up. All of the water flowing started hundreds of miles away,” he noted.
The Hi-Line’s Reliance
Chinook Mayor Chris Hanson said the town relies 100 percent on the Milk for its water. Without improvements on the infrastructure project, the fear of failure remains at the forefront of his mind.
“Our town would fail, it really would,” he said solemnly.
Businesses, schools, homes and the entire community, all depend on this water and Hanson said, “it’s the only thing that keeps out town going.”
It’s more than just the grocery store and shops in Chinook that depend on this water. The mayor said without the farmers and ranchers that dot the Hi-Line, these communities wouldn’t exist; and neither the towns nor producers would exist without the Milk River.
“We gotta have them, we just have to work together in this project,” Hanson explained.
Out in a field, not too far outside Chinook, is where Chris Nemetz lives; a rancher trying to get by while relying on a project that was an idea of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s idea turned into the Milk River Project and gave producers the ability to have a livelihood that could not exist without the project.
“It would be in bad shape, it would be dry and there would just be no revenue,” Nemetz explained.
A dam on private property diverts water from the Milk into irrigation canals that carry water for nearly 30 miles, from Lohman to Harlem – a long distance for a project working on borrowed time.
“It might be a year, it could be 10 years, who knows, but if it fails, depending on the time of year, it could be catastrophic,” Nemetz said.
Congress & Funding
Congress authorized $153 million for upgrades in 2007 as part of the Water Resources Development Act, but those funds were never appropriated so nothing moved forward.
Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) initially did some work on the funding that was approved, but after 11 years and no money has been appropriated to this project in Montana.
“The Milk River Project is a critical water supply for families and farmers in north-central Montana. Unfortunately, the administration is proposing harmful cuts that will prevent the Bureau from finishing design work to replace century-old infrastructure,” Sen. Tester said via a statement issued to MTN News. “As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I’m fighting to ensure the upcoming budget delivers clean water for Montana.”
Sen. Tester is referring to a proposed $1.9 million in funding for the Fiscal Year 2019, which he says is a $1 million cut; which Sen. Tester’s office said he has asked the Bureau to justify its proposed budget cut during an Appropriations hearing last month.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) office also issued a statement to MTN News regarding funding for this project.
“Senator Daines understands how critical this project is to Montanans along the Hi-Line. He will continue to remain engaged with residents and stakeholders to ensure Montanans have reliable water access," the statement said in part.
Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House echoes those sentiments of securing reliable access to water.
“Ensuring Montanans, particularly those in our rural areas, have reliable access to water is critical. I recently secured a commitment from the Bureau of Reclamation to complete the St. Mary’s Diversion Dam’s design," Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) said.
"I am dedicated to move forward with upgrades to the Milk River Project, including the diversion dam project, and I will continue working to secure funding for these projects," he added.
Working together with many different groups is the exact idea behind the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group. Lieutenant Governor Karl Ohs called a meeting in Havre in 2003 to shed light on the decaying project.
That meeting set in motion a process that brought representatives from the State of Montana, federal government, Tribal governments and the Milk River basin users together to begin work on a plan to get funding authorized in Congress to start rehabilitation projects.
The group was formed and is now chaired by Lt. Governor Mike Cooney and Phillips County Economic Growth Council Member Marko Manoukian. The group continues to meet and Steve Davies with the BOR said the collaboration between all the interest groups has been a great way really work together to try and find solutions.
But more than a decade after funding dried up for project upgrades, Davies explained that BOR works with the Joint Board to prioritize the projects that need to be completed for each season. “We try to plan so we don’t put multiple costly projects in one year,” he said.
As the water continues to flow hundreds of miles, filling up reservoirs and trickling down irrigation canals, Azevedo, Nemetz and Hanson believe a new plan to fund the repairs needs to be developed.
“Us irrigators, we can’t be on the hook for the whole bill. Our ground only produces so much, so may dollars per acre,” Nemetz said.
“That’s just not possible,” Azevedo said, referring to the current BOR cost share agreement with water users, putting roughly 74% of the price load on irrigators for the St. Mary Facilities.
According to Davies, water users are on the hook for 65% to 66% of the repairs at Fresno Dam and approximately 40% of the costs for the Nelson Dikes. “Reclamation budgets for the projects and then we bill the irrigators for their portion of it in the year that we do the work,” Davies outlined.
Knowing those percentages fall on the shoulders of the irrigators for maintenance done by the Bureau, they are also responsible for the maintenance of the systems on their own land.
“When you go back on the districts themselves, the canals and laterals and diversion dams that are down on the project, they pay 100 percent of the costs for those and they take care of them themselves,” said Davies. “So these [BOR] costs are on top of the costs they pay to maintain the local systems that deliver the water to their farms actually.”
Not only does the state of Montana have a vested interest in this project, but Tribal governments, the federal government and Canada all do as well.
The Blackfeet Water Settlement Act was passed in Congress in 2016 to “authorize and implement the water rights compact among the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the State of Montana, and the United States, and for other purposes.”
“What that has included within its authorization is authority for Reclamation to revisit the appraisal and feasibility studies of saying ‘okay, let’s update everything that was done in terms of now what do we need to do to for the entire St. Mary unit’,” Davies explained.
He added that the settlement act outlines different criteria the Blackfeet Tribe needs to do before the BOR can initiate another study to see what needs to be done on the entire project.
“There’s no money to do it today, and according to the act, unless it’s modified, the money won’t be available until 2025,” added Davies.
The joint board along with the working group is looking at what options, if any, they have to get that money any earlier.
“It would take an act of congress to clarify that on when that could start,” Davies explained. “But the authority is there within the Blackfeet Settlement Act to do feasibility studies on rehabilitation on the overall project. It doesn’t give money for it, but it’s re-energized, although on a slow timeline, how do we rehabilitate portions of the St. Mary and Milk River Project.”
If a piece of the puzzle that is this project fails and the water stops flowing, Chris Nemetz said, “The bank still needs [to be] paid, people have land lease payments and bills and none of that stops just because the canals don’t have water.”
With the next crop season on the horizon and the head gates are opened, everyone who depends on this water believes this project is the lifeline of the Hi-Line.
“It needs to quit being ignored,” Nemetz said.
“We just need to come up with the money and get it done,” said Hanson with frustration.
“The economy as we know the Hi-Line today could not exist,” Azevedo added.