By Hayley Young
Before the banks of the Milk River are filled, the water has to make its way through the St. Mary Diversion Dam through miles upon miles of canals, two sets of siphons, and five sets of concrete drop structures, all of which were created around the turn of the century when the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) authorized the Milk River Project.
The project’s goal was to provide water for irrigation along the Hi-Line. Workers set out with nothing but manpower, horse- drawn equipment, and sheer will to create the St. Mary Diversion System. The project was completed in 1915, now making it
more than 100 years old.
The St. Mary water system is an essential part of life along the Hi-Line. It provides drinking water for 18,000 individuals in the communities of Havre, Chinook, Harlem, and Fort Belknap; irrigation for 140,000 acres from Havre to Nashua; and, ultimately, food for one million people annually. Without St. Mary, the Milk River would go dry six out of every ten years.
In 2003, Lieutenant Governor Karl Ohs recognized that this aging system was in need of major repair. He brought together members from state, federal, and tribal governments, along with Milk River water users. The group of members is now known as the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group and consists of sixteen volunteer members representing irrigation, the Blackfeet Tribe, Ft. Belknap Indian Community, municipalities, recreation/ fisheries, economic development, and county government. The group is currently co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and Marko Manoukian of Malta. Their goal is to work collectively towards a “workable solution” for a stable water supply.
For nearly 20 years, the group has worked diligently to find funding to repair the ever-aging federal BOR managed system before a catastrophic failure happens.
The system has worked well beyond its anticipated life span and over the years has been band-aided where and when possible.
In May 2020 Drop Structure Five failed— the last in the series of drop structures that slow the flow of water. Due to the failure, flow through the canal system was shut down. Work began on repairs in mid-June. Water returned to the Milk River from the diversion on October 10, 2020. To repair the damage in 22 weeks was nothing short of a miracle.
In late 2021, The Federal Infrastructure Bill allotted $100 million to St. Mary/ Milk River Project. This is non- reimbursable and does not come with specified terms, meaning it does not have to be paid back and can be used for construction anywhere on the upper diversion of the system.
The Bureau of Reclamation has estimated costs of improvements to the diversion system between $80 and $85 million; this includes construction and non- constriction costs, as well as a passageway for fish.
Just as prices for everything have soared over the last couple years, construction costs have nearly doubled. The project is not expected to get underway until 2024, as there is still plenty of design work to complete. Construction could take up to three years to finish. Construction season is short in Montana, limiting the amount of work that can be completed each year. Use of the old diversion structure will allow flow to continue to the Milk River until construction is completed.
Manoukian shared with the Glasgow Courier, “We need to make sure the BOR is using the $100 million in a timely and efficient manner.”
Time is truly of the essence; the system is aging, and it’s unknown when the next failure could happen. These improvements are crucial to users of the Milk River. It is the lifeline that keeps these communities and their economies afloat.