By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, which is working to find ways to repair the system that supplies most of the water in the Milk River, is planning how to do without $9.5 million it requested from Congress this year but did not receive.
Not receiving the funding is "a body blow, but it's not a knockout punch," Paul Azevedo, coordinator of the working group, said Wednesday during its meeting in Havre.
The group will ask Montana's congressional delegation for a pared back request of $3 million to conduct a study of the facilities and $1.5 million to study the diversion's impact on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and how the rehabilitation could benefit the reservation. The $3 million study would include how to best rehabilitate the diversion.
Last year's request included those amounts and another $5 million for an emergency repair fund.
The group also will ask the state for additional money to keep its work going, as well as two state staffers dedicated to the project.
The diversion, built early last century on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, was authorized in 1903 to provide water for irrigation in the Milk River Valley. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the diversion, has estimated the cost of its rehabilitation at $100 million.
Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs created the working group in November 2003 after public meetings about the possibility that the aging structures could suffer catastrophic failure.
John Tubbs of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, an ex officio member of the working group, said the $5 million repair fund should be left out of the next request. That was rather summarily dismissed in Washington, D.C., as a bad idea because of funding constraints, he said.
"It's a good idea from our side," he added.
Randy Reed, who co-chairs the working group with Ohs, read from a letter faxed to him by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Burns said the St. Mary request could not be funded this year because of the large number of requests for money for water projects made to Congress.
Burns advised the group to continue its work to show the project is a good one, send a written request for funding as soon as possible, and use increments when asking for funding rather than lump sums.
Tubbs said the fact Burns sent the letter shows the support Montana's congressional delegation has for the project.
"When he rings up Randy Reed and asks how he can fax a letter before the (working group) meeting, it shows we have his attention," Tubbs said, dding that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg , R-Mont., have also said they will make funding the project a high priority.
Getting the request in earlier will also help, Tubbs said. Last year the group sent its request off too late to get it into a general appropriations request, and there wasn't even time to make it the subject of hearings before committees that could have helped the effort. It also ended up behind many other requests for funding, he said.
The group will meet with Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer and his transition staff Tuesday to discuss the project.
Schweitzer, a Whitefish-area farmer originally from north-central Montana, has said he supports the St. Mary rehabilitation.
The proposed budget of outgoing Gov. Judy Martz includes $500,000 to replace a bridge in Glacier County that transports water across the St. Mary River, $100,000 for work near Sherburne Dam, $100,000 for work on one of the siphons, and $300,000 to pay for other expenses of the working group.
The group will ask Schweitzer to budget another $500,000 in one-time funding for expenses, and to budget for two full-time employees of DNRC to work on the project.
Tubbs said he hopes that funding would provide enough to keep the rehabilitation efforts going until federal appropriations can be secured.
Local legislators who attended the meeting said they will support the working group's requests in the next legislative session.