By Larry Kline/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Several critical bills for funding improvements to the St. Mary Diversion are quickly moving to a final vote in the state Legislature, and members of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group on Wednesday urged the public to lobby for their passage.
Several members of the working group will also travel to Washington, D.C., in April to meet with Montana's congressional delegation and federal officials regarding a $6.25 million federal authorization request. But group members acknowledged that federal funding is unlikely anytime soon.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has estimated the rehabilitation project will cost $100 million. Irrigators have been responsible for repair costs ever since the system was built.
The diversion was authorized in 1903 and brings water from the St. Mary River to the Milk River, which usually dried up before the irrigation project was built. Havre, Chinook, Harlem, Fort Belknap and the Hill County Water District use the water, along with recreation enthusiasts and irrigators.
House Bill 540, which would provide $10 million in bonds as the state's match if the federal money is authorized, passed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday by a 12-8 vote, a tenuous endorsement for a measure that requires a two-thirds vote for passage in the full House, working group interim director Larry Mires said. The bill is scheduled for a second reading on the House floor today.
HB 7 would provide $900,000 in Reclamation and Development Grant funding, which the group could use in a number of areas, including engineering and environmental studies, working group operations, consulting costs, and address environmental issues and vocational training on Blackfeet tribal land. The bill passed second reading Wednesday on the House floor by a 96-4 vote.
HB 11 would provide $500,000 to Glacier County as a match for federal dollars requested for the construction of a new bridge over the St. Mary River to replace one the Bureau of Reclamation has identified as a top risk to failure of the diversion. The total project cost will be more than $2 million, Mires said. The bill passed second reading in the House 90-9 on Wednesday and is scheduled for a third reading today.
HB 2 would provide more than $240,000 to pay for an engineer and a hydrologist to work at the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and provide technical and financial assistance to the working group. The bill passed the House on a 52-48 vote and will be heard by the Senate Finance and Claims Committee next Wednesday.
HB 6 would provide $100,000 for repairs to the Halls Coulee Siphon. The bill passed second reading in the House Wednesday by a 96-3 vote.
Mires and other working group members encouraged the public to contact their legislators about these bills.
"None of this is cast in stone," Mires said. Bills could be amended at the last minute to remove funding for the project, he added.
Members of the working group will travel to Washington for the National Water Resources Association conference April 10-14. They will meet with Montana's delegation about the $6.25 million federal funding request, which includes $3 million for engineering studies, $1.5 million for the bridge replacement, and $1.75 million for environmental impact studies, vocational programs and irrigation projects on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Mires said it does not look like the group will get federal funding anytime soon because Congress is in a belt-tightening mode.
"Our congressional staff all support the project, but there isn't a lot of hope in getting any dollars right now," he said. "This is a process that's going to take a couple of years."
Working group member Gary Anderson, who represents the city of Chinook and its Chamber of Commerce, said the group has to keep pressing the issue with Congress, regardless of the budget climate.
"I feel we should just keep hammering away with them," he said.
The working group members will meet in Lewistown for a strategic planning retreat at the end of the month. The group will tackle a number of issues, including membership expansion, goals and activities.
The addition of new members to the group was a much-debated item at Wednesday's meeting. The members could not agree whether it will continue on with 15, or add more people to the effort. A vote on the matter will be held at the next monthly meeting, which is April 27 in Glasgow.
Residents can contact their representatives in Helena by calling (406) 444-4800 or by sending e-mail at www.leg.state.mt.us/session.htm.