By Brad Reynolds

Without the St. Mary’s Canal, the Milk River would run dry six of every ten years. Without the St. Mary’s Canal, over 140,000 acres could see up to a ninety percent decrease in water flow. Without the St. Mary’s Canal, the communities of Havre, Chinook, and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation could lose their sole source of drinking water.

On May 17, 2020, the St. Mary’s Canal failed.

Drop #5, the last concrete drop structure along the 29-mile canal, collapsed, limiting the flow of water to the Milk River, in turn affecting residents across five conservation districts and a couple hundred miles of Canada.

“This was not a small issue. For people on the Hi-Line, this is their livelihood,” says Sarah Hitchcock, coordinator of the Milk River Watershed Alliance (MRWA).

For more than a decade, MRWA (along with Milk River irrigators and the St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Working Group) has warned of Saint Mary’s impending failure. The canal was among the country’s first five federal water projects, approved in 1903 by the newly formed Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation). Much of it was dug by hand, with steam-powered machinery, and horse-drawn scrapers. At its completion in 1922, St. Mary’s Canal was celebrated as a modern marvel.

Today, it is a relic.

“Major components are crumbling. St. Mary’s and the Milk River Project are in desperate need of repair,” Hitchcock explains.

While the Bureau of Reclamation ultimately owns the canal, a cost-share agreement was made between the federal government and irrigators in 1922, in which irrigators accepted all costs for operation, maintenance, and replacement. Today, those expenses number in the tens of millions—a bill that irrigators cannot afford to pay on their own. MRWA is one of a number of groups urging Congress to reassess that allocation and make the canal’s rehabilitation more affordable for everyone involved.

“The Milk River is over 700 miles long. It’s not just irrigators. There aren’t many people along the Milk who aren’t affected by these structures,” Hitchcock explains.

Recreation and tourism along the Hi-Line are significantly impacted by the Milk River. Fresno Reservoir, which is formed by the damming of the Milk, is one of Montana’s best warm water fisheries. Each year (with the exception of 2020), the Fresno Walleye Challenges generates an economic boost to the Havre area. Nearly 200 miles east, Glasgow sees an annual boost to its economy from the Milk River Catfish Classic.

“A lot of people are very invested at this point,” says Hitchcock. “State legislators, feds, tribal entities, irrigators, business owners, biologists, ecologists, fishermen—it’s all hands on deck.”

Drop #5 of St. Mary’s Canal was repaired by October 2020 using emergency funds, but the crisis is far from over.

“We said it would fail, it failed, and it will continue to fail,” Hitchcock warns.

She says the silver lining of Drop #5’s failure is that it turned more people’s attention to the issue.

“Collaboration is important. We’re finding things we have in common and working to see more change happen,” she explains.

St. Mary’s federal designation complicates matters immensely, but headway is being made. In March 2021, at the Montana State Legislative Session, Representative Casey Knudsen of Malta introduced House Joint Resolution No. 7, “urging Congress, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Reclamation to repair the funding allocation and authorize funding for the replacement and rehabilitation of the St. Mary river diversion and Milk River Project.”

It passed in the House unanimously, 100 to 0.

Now, it’s up to Montana’s representatives in Congress to communicate the urgency of the matter. MRWA encourages members of the public to do their part by putting a face to those affected.

“Reach out to Rosendale, Tester, and Daines and give your personal story. Ask: how can I help you help me?”

We cannot allow the Hi-Line to be left high and dry.

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