St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Working Group Discusses Status of System, Pending Projects

HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Working Group met on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the current state of the St. Mary’s System as well as projects that are being worked on.

Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras, a Co-Chair of the Working Group, started off the meeting by stating that rehabilitating the St. Mary’s System remains a top priority for the Gianforte administration.

“This is a priority of our administration. Getting funding to provide this. We realize how important it is.”

The meeting featured extensive discussion on ongoing preliminary work on the project to rehabilitate the Diversion Dam at the head of the canal.

Currently, 30 percent designs for the Diversion Dam are ongoing. The Working Group says they are going to need $2 million in funding down the road if they would like the design to be completed by September 2022.

As for the Ability to Pay Study that the Working Group voted to get started with at their last meeting by using $100,000 in funds, the Working Group says the contract for that was signed last week. $80,000 was paid up front, and the final study is expected to be ready by the end of the calendar year.

The accompanying legislation in U.S. Congress that would allocate $52 million towards the Dam remains stalled. A staffer for Senator Steve Daines says the bill is currently in committee and a schedule is unclear. It is also possible the bill could be inserted into another piece of legislation, but nothing is certain at this time.

Another source of funding for rehabilitating the St. Mary’s could come via House Bill 632, the bill from the State Legislature that allocated the latest round of COVID relief funds.

The bill includes $500 million for water and wastewater infrastructure, and a nine-member committee featuring legislators and people appointed by the Governor’s office will begin meeting next month to decide which projects will receive funding.

The members of the committee are expected to be finalized by Monday, according to Juras, with their first meeting scheduled for June 11th.

According to the Working Group, projects can apply for up to $25 million in funds, although there will be a match requirement. Juras told the Working Group that the Gianforte Administration will advocate for flexibility in how the funding can be used.

There are also plenty of unknowns regarding how much funding the St. Mary’s could receive through this outlet, as the Federal Government has yet to release specific guidelines on what funds can be allocated for or what can constitute matching funds.

The deadline to apply for funds is July 15th, so the numerous open questions will need to be answered in short order.

The Working Group plans to meet again in late June, but a date has not been set.

Also discussed at the meeting:

  • The International Joint Commission will be doing an equalization study on the St. Mary’s System in the coming months to determine the ratio of water used by Canada and the U.S. This topic came up after members of the Working Group asked if Canadian stakeholders could help pay for some of the projects to the system. Juras said there should be some way to make that work.
  • Representatives from Fort Belknap and Blackfeet said that they are continuing negotiations on their respective water compacts. Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager Jennifer Patrick said she was supportive of the efforts to create compacts.
  • Patrick said that irrigators are beginning to ramp up water usage and water levels in Sherburne, Fresno and Nelson Reservoirs are currently in solid shape, although more precipitation would further help matters
  • Toby Tabor of the Bureau of Reclamation says that 60 percent designs are complete for the Fresno Safety of Dams project. The 90 percent designs are expected to be complete by September. Public meetings along the Hi-Line will likely take place starting in late June or early July to discuss the project.

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