As Drought Puts Hi-Line in Precarious Position, St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Working Group Hopes for Funding Injection

HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Group Convened on Wednesday morning for a wide-ranging meeting.

Ongoing Drought

Nearly the entire Hi-Line is in the midst of drought conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional, and the impact on irrigators and other stakeholders in the area has been crippling.

Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick says there are currently no natural flows along the river, meaning that all water is coming from the St. Mary’s Canal and Conveyance System.

Irrigators in Canada have already been shut off from using the system, as have those that rely on Nelson Reservoir in eastern Montana. Patrick says the majority of irrigators that rely on Fresno Reservoir for water will be cut off beginning on August 3rd. At that time, Patrick says they will begin ramping down for minimum releases for municipalities and the Fort Belknap Indian Community.

Fresno Reservoir is down to just over 20,000 acre-feet as of Wednesday, meaning it is just 22 percent full. Patrick says by the time irrigation is cut off, it will likely be down to just 10,000 acre-feet.

At that time, they will begin filling Fresno back up with water from the head of the St. Mary’s System, with the hope to get Fresno back up to 30,000 acre-feet for winter storage by October or November.

One ongoing issue with the St. Mary’s system this summer has been water evaporating while moving downstream due to the hot temperatures. There also is no way to control runoff from the system, except for one bladder near Dodson. This means that a significant amount of water that comes from Sherburne Reservoir never ends up making it all the way through the system.

For irrigators along the Milk River, it’s not just the lack of water that’s a problem, but also insects such as grasshoppers and blister Beatles. Grasshoppers have been eating up entire wheatfields, while blister Beatles are contaminating hay and are toxic to horses.

According to producers at the meeting, spring wheat acreage is the lowest it’s been since 1988, with under 50 percent of normal production, while winter wheat is at around 50 percent of normal production.

There is also the ongoing hay shortage, and ranchers are worried that they may have to liquidate cattle as a result to prevent them from starving.


The St. Mary’s System remains in critical need of millions of dollars in funding for a rehabilitation before another catastrophic collapse.

The Rehabilitation working group has only $125,000 cash in hand, according to Patrick, who says they trying obtain funding through a variety of methods.

The one the closest to the finish line at this time is within the bipartisan infrastructure package slowly making its way through the halls of the U.S. Congress.

The package currently includes up to $100 million in funding for the system, and the money would not have to be repaid. Staffers for Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines were at the meeting and said they continue to support the package and are hopeful it will be able to make its way to President Joe Biden’s desk.

In a preliminary vote in the U.S. Senate on the bill on Wednesday night, Tester voted for the bill, while Daines voted against it.

New Media Broadcasters has reached out to Senator Daines’ office to clarify their position on the infrastructure package, and this was their response:

As the sole Montana voice on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Daines was instrumental to ensuring funding for the St. Mary’s Milk River water project advanced out of committee. However, when the Senate voted yesterday, final bill text or details on how it’s going to be paid for were not available or public. Senator Daines is fighting for Montana priorities to be included in this bill, as he successfully did in securing funding for St. Mary’s in committee. It is also essential that any final bill be fully paid for and not increase the deficit by one cent.

The Senator thinks it’s important to ensure there will be an opportunity to offer amendments to the package to make it stronger for Montana, including adding additional forest management reforms to prevent deadly wildfires and protect Montana families and communities from fire. Montana is already facing a catastrophic wildfire season, so while the forest management provisions the Senator has secured in this package are a good start, there’s more to do, and his final vote will depend on the amendment process. The Senator also thinks it’s important Senator Tester and Democrats ensure this is not just a stepping stone to pass President Biden’s $3.5 trillion reckless tax and spend spree.

Milk River Joint Board President Wade Jones said it is critical that everyone support the infrastructure bill despite political differences and called the Diversion Dam a “ticking time bomb” that is in danger of suffering a catastrophic failure.

Another method of funding they are working on is through the St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act, which remains stalled in Congress. If it were to pass, it would provide up to $52 million in funding for rehabilitating the diversion dam at the head of the canal. This is supported by Montana’s Congressional delegation and recently had a hearing in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Ocean, and Wildlife. At that hearing, speakers included Representative Matt Rosendale and Jennifer Patrick. The Act was also briefly discussed in a Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Hearing, as well as an Energy Infrastructure Hearing.

The third funding method in the works, which Patrick says remains a “long shot,” is receiving funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Montana has been given $300 million to divvy out to water, wastewater and broadband projects, and funds will be allocated by a Commission in Helena at the recommendation of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. DNRC says they will submit a list of recommended projects to the ARPA Commission by August 15th. The St. Mary’s Project has put in applications for four projects and is asking for a total of $70 million.

According to Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras, there have been 321 total applications for ARPA funding for water infrastructure projects in Montana.

However, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, current guidelines for ARPA funds exclude dams and reservoirs. Montana’s Congressional Delegation has asked for the guidelines to change to allow for funding of these types of projects, but no action has been taken on that by the Treasury Department.

Patrick said the standards set by the Treasury appear to favor more urban projects, and Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson also criticized the standards, saying “if we have no dams or reservoirs, then we have no water.”

There were mumblings at the meeting that another opportunity to apply for ARPA funds could come early next year, potentially with guidelines more favorable to the St. Mary’s System. Nothing has been confirmed on that front.

Fresno Safety of Dams

One project that continues to go through preliminary stages is the Fresno Safety of Dams.

The estimated cost for this project is now up to $71 million, 15 percent of which will need to be paid by project stakeholders.

Steve Darlington of the Bureau of Reclamation says this project will be going forward regardless of what happens with funding for the rest of the system due to the potential for catastrophic flooding if the Dam were to have a serious problem.

He says they are hoping to put a project website online within the next few days and will have an environmental assessment finalized soon, which will open up a 30 day public comment period.

However, Darlington says because there isn’t much of an environmental impact anticipated, there will be no public meetings on the EA.

Darlington says public meetings on the project will likely begin to take place in October, as that is when 90 percent designs and a final independent review are expected to be completed.

The St. Mary Canal and Conveyance Works System serves 140,000 irrigation acres along the Milk River and provides drinking water to over 18,000 Montanans, including the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Blackfeet Nation and many towns along the Hi-Line.

Other notes from the meeting:

  • The ability to pay study on the Milk River system is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year
  • A cost estimate on rehabilitating the Diversion Dam is expected by the end of September, and the Bureau of Reclamation is continuing to work on designs despite a lack of funding in the hopes that the funding will come down soon
  • Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage says she is discouraged that the County Commissions in Phillips and Valley Counties have voted to oppose the Fort Belknap Water Compact, which is continuing to be finalized.
  • Gerald Lunak, Resource Monitoring Director for the Blackfeet Tribe, emphasized the importance of ensuring historical preservation on their Reservation while projects are taking place in the area. Patrick said that if they receive funding for rehabilitation, there will likely be plans to create a dedicated group with a goal of preserving the areas historical sites. Lunak added that they are working on tying up “odds and ends” for their water compact, which they hope to finalize in the near future.
  • Douglas Stuart of Harlem provided public comment during the meeting and said he wants to make sure people fully grasp the impact of this drought on operators, saying some could “go extinct.” He says Fort Belknap area ranchers have lost 75 percent of hay production and says the estimated economic impact on the area is a shortfall of over $11.4 million. Stuart urged officials to conduct similar studies elsewhere on the Hi-Line so that politicians that represent more urban portions of the country can gain an understanding of how the drought is impacting rural America.
  • The Working Group has scheduled their next meeting for September 21st at 10 AM.

This post has been updated to reflect how Montana’s U.S. Senators voted in a preliminary vote on the infrastructure package on Wednesday night.

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