After detouring through Canada, the Milk River re-enters the U.S. in Hill County, north of Havre. The river flows into Fresno Reservoir, where a dam (shown above) releases water back into the Milk River, the water lifeline irrigators from Havre to Glasgow depend on. Credit: Teresa Getten / MTFP

HAVRE — If ever there was a summer when hundreds of Montana’s Hi-Line farmers could use rain, it’s this one.

An $8 million infrastructure failure on the St. Mary Canal last month will restrict approximately 800 irrigators who work about 150,000 acres from Havre to Glasgow to about half the water they normally use during a season.  

The St. Mary Canal was built approximately 100 years ago to feed water from lakes Sherburne and St. Mary into the Milk River and make it possible for ag producers in arid central and eastern Montana to pull water and make a living. The Milk River Project is among the oldest of the Bureau of Reclamation’s infrastructures.

No failure of this magnitude has occurred in the history of the elaborate ditch system.  

“There has not been an interruption to this extent,” said Steve Davies, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Billings, in an email. “Historically there have been occasional shutdowns required for emergency repairs to a siphon or canal embankment, but those were typically 1-2 weeks at most.” 

Irrigators have enough water in Nelson and Fresno reservoirs, which are now full, to pull until mid-July. So this year weather will have an exceptionally major say in how the 2020 season pans out for the farmers and ranchers who depend on the water system.

“There are some big worries with the loss of this water,” said Jennifer Patrick, manager of the Milk River Joint Board of Control, which represents irrigators. Patrick, of Havre, added that farmers have their fingers crossed for a “timely precipitation event.”

Rainfall on central Montana’s Hi-Line during the summer months is anything but certain. After June, the average monthly rainfall drops to about an inch by September. The last drought to hit the area was just three years ago.

The municipalities whose citizens depend on the system for water, including Havre, Chinook, Harlem and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, will not be affected. The canal is located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, whose residents also depend on the water source.

On May 17, a concrete drop structure on the 29-mile canal collapsed. The Joint Board, Bureau of Reclamation and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation assessed the damage 10 days after the collapse.

On Wednesday, June 10, BOR announced that Drop 5, as well as the similar structure Drop 2, will be replaced. The work should begin Wednesday, June 17, Davies said. 

Drop 2 has not collapsed, but plans to replace it in anticipation of failure were already in the works before the Drop 5 collapse. The other three drops are in better condition, Davies said, having benefited from “various degrees of maintenance.”

The price tag for replacing both drops is “very roughly” $8.5 million, Davies said Monday. DNRC Director John Tubbs estimated the repair at about $8 million.

The St. Mary and Greater Milk River Project systems have been in need of an overhaul for decades. On Nov. 18, 2003, then-Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs convened a meeting in Havre to raise awareness about the urgent need to rehabilitate the aging infrastructure. 

Finding the estimated $200 million to complete the task has been the barrier.

Seventy-five percent of the maintenance costs of the system has been the responsibility of stakeholders including irrigators, municipalities and individual contractors from Havre to Glasgow. The remaining 25% has been paid for with federal money.

In the case of this week’s repairs, irrigators don’t have the money to pay their share.  

“It’s a very tough situation in terms of the need versus the cost and affordability,” Davies said.

But that won’t stop the project from moving forward.

The state, through DNRC, has stepped up with $10 million in bonding authority, Patrick said.

What Davies called a “complex” cost repayment plan will be worked out while the work ensues.

The Joint Board has applied to be absolved of an additional 35% of the cost, in hopes that the failure qualifies stakeholders for emergency extraordinary maintenance relief.

The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by Montana’s federal legislators.

Two days after the failure, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, wrote to BOR Commissioner Brenda Burman, emphasizing that water users should not be burdened with an “unreasonable cost” as repairs commence.

“This is a cost Reclamation will need to shoulder, or irrigators will have to choose between breaking the bank on emergency repairs or not receiving enough water this season,” Tester wrote.

On June 12, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines, both Republicans, co-wrote to Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, asking him to “continue monitoring reconstruction closely to ensure timely completion.”

“The failure of Drop 5 poses a major threat to agricultural users and the surrounding communities,” Daines and Gianforte wrote. “For that reason, we urge your full attention to this matter and request you explore all possible options to reduce the impact felt by Montanans.”

Freelance journalist and writer Paul Dragu is the former editor-in-chief of the Havre Herald and previously worked as an award-winning investigative journalist for the Havre Daily News. You can email Paul at pauldrg454@gmail.com.