CUT BANK, Mont. (NMB) – The Milk River Joint Board of Control, along with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony at the site of the replaced Drop 5 of the St. Mary’s Canal on Thursday.
Montana’s entire Congressional Delegation was on hand and gave speeches. Others that spoke included Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs, HDR Project Engineer Stan Schweissing, Matt Popa and Thad Pederson of Sletten Construction, Lieutenant Governor and Co-Chair of the St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Group Mike Cooney, and representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Reservations.
“We’ve had sinkholes, we’ve had gate failures, we’ve had gate malfunctions, we’ve had siphon failures 29 miles upstream of (Drop 5),” said Steve Davies, Montana Area Office Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. “We’ve had canal blowouts across Montana. All of them unique. All of them challenging to prepare. But really, nothing like we’ve encountered with the Drop 5 failure 22 weeks ago. Responding to this has been truly amazing from everybody.”
Getting the project done in just 22 weeks required bipartisan cooperation at the federal and state level, as well as assistance from the Blackfeet Nation and Canada. The canal is on tribal land and a portion of the Milk River runs through Canada.
“We were able to take a step back at the federal government and say ‘We’re going to streamline this. We’re going to be innovative.’ We’ve got the backing at home from the President and from the Secretary of the Interior to make this happen quickly,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “To make sure we’re following the rules but we’re also making them work for us. So we did some really innovative things with contracting, we did some innovative things with our partners, and we got this thing done.”
Nearly every speaker heaped praise onto Jennifer Patrick, who was the emcee of the ceremony. Patrick is the Project Manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control and dedicated countless hours to make sure water would flow through the system this fall.
“You got handed the biggest project the Joint Board has ever been dealt,” said Tubbs. “You didn’t get to plan for it, you didn’t get any time to think about it. It just got handed to your desk on a bad May day…Well, who jumped up and really took it on…She has done just an outstanding job. These only get together by building a team, and you’re the team leader.”
The ribbon cutting concluded with a toast from Wade Jones, President of the Milk River Joint Board of Control and Malta District Irrigator.
“It’s Christmas in October. It really is,” said Jones, “It is unbelievable, it’s almost mind-boggling to see. We’re happy. This is so big for the survival of the Milk River. Not only for the farming and ranching, but for the municipalities, the Reservations also. It’s just a good thing for everybody.”
The $8 million project to replace Drop 5 was completed just 22 weeks after it suffered a catastrophic failure, cutting off the flow of water from the System to the Milk River.
Other work that was completed include some pump-outs and inspection work, repairs to Drops 1 and 2, and maintenance and concrete work on siphons.
The system was turned back on last week, and water is expected to reach Fresno Reservoir by Sunday. The system will be turned off for the winter at the end of the month, but storage in Fresno is expected to be double what it is now after the last drop of water flows in.
More Work to Be Done
Now that the most immediate and critically needed work on the St. Mary’s System is complete, attention will turn to repairing the rest of the century old system.
This will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and likely require fixing the current cost-sharing agreement that places an overwhelming burden on irrigators. This can only be done by congressional means.
“A (cost share) almost has to happen for us still to survive,” said Jones. “The Diversion Dam, it’s no secret, that’s probably the next thing on the list. As irrigators, we’re able to keep up with day-to-day maintenance. It’s the big projects that are out of our reach because of the quality of crops that we grow along the Milk River.”
For now though, those that have worked on or rely on the project could celebrate a rejuvenated Milk River.
“This 22 weeks was, I can’t even put it into words,” Patrick said. “It was an amazing process. I made some great friends through this. We are flowing water into the Milk River right now. We can see it in (the Milk River). We’re about to Fresno.”
The St. Mary Canal is the primary water source for eight irrigation districts, contract pumpers and several municipalities along the Milk River, as well as the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
The canal stretches for 29 miles from the St. Mary River to the bottom of Drop 5, where water is released into the North Fork of the Milk River.