By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A report by the federal Bureau of Land Management has found that the best way to improve the water supply in north-central Montana is to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion.
The working group that is pushing for federal funding for the massive project said it can use the report to bolster its case with Congress.
The report was made available at Wednesday's meeting of the working group in Havre.
"I think it could be of benefit for the project because it does a lot of the work we won't have to do," said John Tubbs of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, an ex officio member of the working group.
He added, "As expected, the focus goes right back to St. Mary."
The diversion is part of an irrigation project authorized in 1903 to provide water to farmers in the Milk River Valley. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates it will cost $100 million to rehabilitate the deteriorating diversion, which uses water from Lake Sherburne to keep the Milk River running year-round.
The diversion also supplies municipal water to Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Fort Belknap Agency.
The working group was created last year to find ways to pay for the rehabilitation. Under the 1903 authorization, the users of the water are required to pay all maintenance and repairs on the diversion in the year the work is done.
The report released by the Bureau of Reclamation was commissioned by Congress in 1999 as part of the water rights compact negotiated with Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Congress directed the bureau to find ways to best resolve problems with the region's water supply.
The report found that the Milk River is the only river system in the region that is short of water to meet current needs.
"Shortages are caused by periodic severe droughts, over-development of irrigation in relation to the available water supply, and aging, under-designed canals unable to meet needs even when an adequate water supply is available. Shortages for irrigation occur two-thirds of the time," the report concludes.
The 115-page report shows that rehabilitating the St. Mary Diversion would have a "positive" effect on Milk River irrigators and municipalities, fish and wildlife habitat and the water supply at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. It would improve opportunities for recreation, increase the chance to build hydropower plants on the river, and could benefit the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which is negotiating a water compact with the state and federal governments.
Rehabilitating the diversion would have a "slightly positive" effect on providing habitat for endangered and threatened species and water quality in the river, and could provide a slight benefit for the water compact being negotiated by the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the report concludes.
The other five alternatives listed as "promising alternatives" were: building a pumping station to put more water into Nelson Reservoir northeast of Malta; enhancing the South Dodson Irrigation Canal; building a reservoir near Glasgow to improve the water supply provided by the Vandalia South Canal; enlarging Fresno Reservoir; and building a canal to divert water from Duck Creek near Fort Peck Reservoir to the Milk River near Vandalia.
The report also lists four alternatives that it said are worthy of consideration by local governments and irrigators: increasing the efficiency of irrigation operations on farms; improving river management by increasing the number of measurement stations and more closely regulating the release of water from storage systems; improving the efficiency of canals in the Milk River Valley; and using a marketing system in which people sell or lease their water rights to other users.
Those alternatives could improve water management, improve irrigation, help the local economy, and improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, the report concludes.
Several alternatives were dropped from consideration because of cost, insignificant benefits to the water system, and problems the alternatives would create in water quality. Those included building a canal starting at Virgelle to divert water from the Missouri River to the Milk River, several options involving building new dams such as by Babb on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and on tributaries in the Milk River Valley, enlarging existing reservoirs such as Nelson Reservoir, and buying farmland to reduce the demand for water.