Spilled Milk: River diversion inching toward reopening

On May 17 a concrete drop structure failed on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project St. Mary Canal, northwest of the town of Cut Bank in northern Mont. This concrete drop structure is the last of five drop structures that use gravity and siphons to convey water through the 29-mile long St. Mary Canal to the North Fork of the Milk River. Water is diverted into the canal from the St. Mary River, near Glacier National Park. Photos courtesy Bureau of Reclamation
N David Skinner

The warning had been in place for a long time: The 100-year-old St. Mary River diversion system was likely to fail at any moment.

On May 17 it happened.

A concrete structure on the St. Mary Canal near Glacier National Park crumbled and washed downstream, shutting off flow to the Milk River and leaving the entire northern hi-line of Montana without a stable water supply, including 140,000 acres of irrigated crops on over 700 farms and affecting 18,000 people in the Milk River basin.

The gravity of the situation was immediate and a team of the Milk River Joint Board of Control, the state of Montana and the Bureau of Reclamation launched into assessment and planning. Construction crews are currently working on full replacement of two of the five concrete structures – both the destroyed Drop 5 and the anticipated next-to-go Drop 2 – that slow the water from the 29-mile plunge off the mountain before it drops into the Milk River. Multiple groups will be waiting for the green flag that the concrete has dried and the water can run.

In the meantime irrigators have been sustained until late July due to a full storage capacity of the Fresno Dam near Havre, Montana. However, if the canal is not turned back on by the anticipated August date, the hi-line of irrigated farms will be high and dry just as pre-harvest water demands accelerate.

“Our entire lives were turned upside down on May 17,” says Jennifer Patrick, project manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control, which coordinates the eight irrigation districts from Havre to Glasgow, where the Milk dumps into the Missouri River. “We are committed to bringing water back to the hi-line, but we honestly don’t see the finish line from here yet. This failure essentially turns irrigated farmers into dryland farmers, which is not sustainable.”

The Milk River Project is a wildly unique water diversion system that dams and redirects the St. Mary River, which originates in the glacier mountains in western Montana, into a system of 100-year-old horseback-dug canals and hand-riveted steel siphon tubes before dumping into the north fork of the Milk River just yards from the Canadian border on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The enhanced Milk River, which is estimated to normally run dry by June in six out of 10 years, flows north into Canada then back into the U.S. and crosses two Indian reservations.

The project was launched in 1917 by the then U.S. Department of Reclamation to open up water to the arid plains of central and eastern Montana, but today multiple towns, businesses, recreation opportunities, and wildlife benefit from the Milk River. The entire diversion system has been under scrutiny for almost 20 years as authorities warned of the breakdown of the structure, and highlighted the economic magnitude of the system.

Montana’s lone Congressman, Greg Gianforte, calls the Milk River Project “the most important infrastructure project in Montana.” Current statue provides only 25 percent federal funding for upkeep of the project, with local users allocated 75 percent. The cost to update the entire 29-mile system is estimated at $200 million; the repairs to Drop 5 and Drop 2 alone are tagged at $8 million. In June Gianforte sponsored the St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act in May 2019, which would switch the percentages of cost of repairs – 75 percent to the federal government, and 25 percent local. Senator Steve Daines has also been active in rallying for repair funding. In July Sen. Daines introduced an amendment to a major defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, to include repairs to the canal system. Daines also participated in a canal tour and listening session in Cut Bank, Mont., in mid-July, bringing with him Dr. Tim Petty, the U.S Department of the Interior assistant secretary for water and science.

The current $8 million project is funded by a previous state-level bond that was in place, as well as emergency federal money. The Bureau of Reclamation also determined the repairs to the drops were receptive of emergency funding, which helped with the total price tag. Currently irrigators are not paying any additional costs for the repairs, as their water prices were already set earlier in the year.

Jeff Pattison is a rancher from Glasgow and chairman of the Milk River Watershed Alliance, and irrigates off the Milk River. He has been actively promoting the importance of maintaining the diversion system for years.

“The more I study it the more I figure how complex and how awesome this system really is,” says Pattison. “This water is so critical to not just us irrigators, but to the folks up in Canada who have no reserve storage, for the tribes this river acts as a barrier for their bison, and the positive impact on the wildlife, hunting and fishing and recreation in this area is huge.”

Pattison says if this disaster would have occurred in 2017, a significant drought year, that the Milk would be currently be a dry bed. Due to above average precipitation in 2019, however, the dams and reserves were at peak capacity, so he and other irrigators are still pulling water. But it’s not just the irrigators who he’s worried about. It’s the entire hi-line.

“I don’t think anyone realizes the impact this region has on not just our state and nation, but the world. The endangered wildlife this region protects, the food we grow, the incredible level of livestock genetics that are raised on the ranches in this area … we truly need every voice advocating for this project,” says Pattison.

“I think Wade Jones (a Glasgow irrigated farmer) said it best when he said if we lose the Milk River, you might as well just take the top half of the map of Montana and tear it off. It’s that significant.”