St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group Discusses Drop 5 Failure

HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group met via conference call on Friday afternoon to discuss the catastrophic failure of Drop 5 of the St. Mary Canal and Conveyance Works System.

The collapse cut off the flow of water from the system to the Milk River and will impact the water supply for thousands of Montanans across the Hi-Line in the coming months.

Steve Davies of the Bureau of Reclamation says the cause of the failure remains under investigation, but water is believed to have played a part. Drone imagery and topography of the site will be taken on Saturday. A technical team of engineers will be on-site Wednesday to view what remains of Drop 5.

Davies added that the fact Fresno and Nelson Reservoirs are currently full will allow municipalities and irrigators across the Hi-Line to get through mid-July.

“Based on that supply at Fresno and Nelson, and inflows projected into Fresno, we have until about mid-July before we have to start shutting down (irrigation). This gets us through the first (irrigation season). What’s at risk here is the second half of this season. We don’t have a water supply for the second half of the season unless there’s rainfall, or unless there’s a temporary fix that starts putting water in this (system).”

In terms of potential fixes, Davies said “everything is on the table.”

“We’re looking at is their a temporary fix, what is that temporary fix, and is that full canal capacity of 600 (cubic feet/second), or something less? What’s the cost of that, what’s the time frame, and how does that differ from a full repair? So we’re looking at the full spectrum of what’s possible.”

Besides those in the working group, others on the call included Senator Steve Daines, several employees from the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, representatives from Rep. Greg Gianforte and Senator Jon Tester’s Office, State Senator Mike Lang, and the landowners of the ranch where Drop 5 is located.

All three members of Montana’s Congressional Delegation have stated their support for changing the cost sharing agreement for the Works System and repairing Drop 5 as soon as possible.

“The tragedy here is that it comes right before irrigation seasons, threatening the livelihoods of so many who depend on water in that system,” Sen. Daines said on the call. “This is kind of one of those great big ‘I told you so’s…’ It’s one of the oldest BOR projects in the country and also has one of the highest cost shares in the country. That’s what’s got to be changed.”

The current cost sharing agreement puts about 75 percent of costs on irrigation stakeholders and 25 percent on the federal government.

If the Bureau of Reclamation declares the situation a disaster, the cost sharing agreement changes to 65 percent irrigation stakeholders and 35 percent federal government.

Legislation is pending in Congress that would change the cost sharing agreement. The new agreement would put about 75 percent of costs on the federal government and the remaining percentage on irrigation stakeholders.

Drop 2 was also discussed, and it was noted that it has the potential to fail if and when the system gets up and running again, and that it is also in dire need of replacement.

Davies said the design for a Drop 2 replacement has already been completed, and that with slight modification, a Drop 5 design could be completed in short order. This will speed up the timeline for replacement.

Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson says he has been assured Havre will have water through the winter, but cautioned that they don’t have a backup system for water supply.

“We’re looking for a permanent fix to get it done now, because if we get into next year without any water…the city doesn’t have a back-up system. We have wells, but our wells are for emergency purposes only. So the only thing we can use those for is in an emergency, and it’s a boil order because of the nitrates and everything that are in the wells. So realistically, without water next year (from the St. Mary System), we don’t have water for the City of Havre except for boil-order water.”

In the best case scenario, Davies says a repair could be done by sometime in August.

As for the cost of the project, Davies estimates replacements of Drop 2 between $2.2-2.5 million and Drop 5 as a rough estimate of $5.5 million.

The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group as well as other parties on the call vowed to continue working to ensure the St. Mary System is back in operation as soon as possible.

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