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A Century of the Lower Yellowstone Project

Remarks Delivered By:
John W. Keys III, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation
Lower Yellowstone Project Centennial
Sidney
July 30, 2005


It's wonderful to be "home" in Montana again. In the early days, the saying was "There's gold in them thar hills!" They were absolutely right. The gold has turned out to be the friends and partners and work that we have mined and grown.

Today we are celebrating a project, but, even more important, we're celebrating the people who have contributed to this project over the years and what the project has brought to the people who live here.

The Yellowstone River has been the center of life for this area. In the early West, it served as a highway. Lewis and Clark passed this way two hundred years ago on their epic journey. A century later, local citizens urged the newly created Reclamation Service to begin another journey, to transform the river into a lifeline.

Project History That journey came with a lot of challenges. When Reclamation was established, there were only 8,000 cars in the United States and only 144 miles of paved road. Horse-drawn equipment was still being used to build dams and canals.

As is true of all Reclamation projects, then and now, they wouldn't get done without cooperation and partnership.

The Yellowstone itself helped, as the steamboat "Expansion" navigated the river to deliver materials to the diversion dam site. The Northern Pacific Railroad carried freight, which was transferred to wagons and then hauled to construction sites. Most people traveled the long distances by horseback or on foot.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the project was a labor shortage and the inability of contractors to complete the work. Most men were busy working their own farms and were not available for contractors to hire. The Lower Yellowstone was not the only project under construction either. Labor was also needed for the nearby Huntley, Buford-Trenton, and Williston projects.

Contractors were sometimes faced with conditions that they were not prepared for. The riverbed at the Diversion Dam site proved to be harder than expected for the placing of wooden piles. Flooding tore out portions of the work. Winters were harsh. But people persevered. Reclamation itself eventually assumed the work and completed the dam.

Construction was started on July 22, 1905, and irrigation water was available in 1909. The prairie was transformed.

Reclamation operated demonstration farms to show how to use irrigation methods.

Irrigation would provide a stable economy. Higher value crops replaced subsistence forage. That was the promise of Reclamation: to reclaim arid lands through irrigation.

The need for the project is illustrated by how rapidly farms and communities developed as water was provided. Some of those communities are long gone. Others remain as testaments to their founders and the pioneers that made them possible. Savage, Montana, is one example.

Savage was named after Reclamation's Supervising Engineer, H.N. Savage, who managed a number of projects in four states of the upper Missouri River basin, including the Lower Yellowstone. A great deal of his time was spent traveling to the widely dispersed projects. Legend has it that he was the first Reclamation engineer to get a new-fangled automobile and a driver.

Legend also has it that the car was the first to wreck. It rolled down a hill on the way from Billings, where Savage lived, to the Shoshone Project, near Cody, Wyoming. No one was hurt, and the car was repaired. I just can't imagine the red tape and paperwork that was avoided by the timing of the wreck. Imagine what would be required if the same thing happened today. I believe you can see a picture of the car in the photographs on exhibit.

Speaking of paperwork, be sure to look at the copies of the original drawings for portions of the project that are on display. They give you a sense of how much work those early engineers and draftsmen did as Reclamation constructed the Diversion Dam, canals, laterals, crossings, drops, and turnouts that make the project work.

But much more was required to make the project possible. Surveying the land for the project - and the farms that came after - and providing roads, bridges, and housing for workers were additional tasks that had to be done. For example, the camps that housed workers had to supply everything they needed. Stores, warehouses, offices, stables, dormitories, dining halls, family housing, even hospitals were built where the prairie met the project.

And that was just to build the project. The farmers and ranchers had to build houses, dig ditches, level fields - what a time!

I truly believe the pioneering spirit that helped get the Lower Yellowstone project built and operating continues today. Your District and Board of Directors are working on title transfer to put you in a better financial situation. You are working with us on screens for your canals and on a by-pass structure to help pallid sturgeon as part of the Endangered Species Act. That means a lot to all of us because your project is our future.

Reclamation's Continued Commitment Today, Reclamation continues that commitment to the American public. We supply irrigation water for 10 million acres of farmland that produce 60 percent of the nation's vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts. In addition, we bring drinking water to more than 31 million people. Reclamation is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western United States. Our 58 powerplants provide more than 40 billion kilowatt hours annually - enough electricity to serve 6 million homes.

I want to say a word about Reclamation people - they are the best. They work hard, and their commitment to serve comes through loud and clear. Reclamation works in partnership with states, tribes, and others to meet new water needs and balance the multitude of competing uses for our limited water resources. Many of the challenges facing us today weren't even dreamed of 100 years ago. Our mission is to meet the increasing water demands of the West while protecting the environment. We place great emphasis on fulfilling our water delivery obligations to traditional customers like you as well as for needs such as water conservation and water recycling.

At the Interior Department, we work according to the guidelines of Secretary Norton's 4Cs: Conservation through cooperation, communication, and consultation.

One of the best examples of the 4Cs at work is the Secretary's Water 2025 initiative. Water 2025 provides a framework to address current hot spots and to avert potential problems before they can start. We’re still dealing with the effects of record drought. Droughts come and go, but we also face problems such as increased demands for water, over-allocated watersheds, and aging infrastructure.

The Water 2025 Challenge Grant program is one of our most effective means to work at solving these problems. Last year was the first for this program. Proposals aimed at stretching water supplies through conservation, technological upgrades, and market innovations such as water banks.

The Paradise Valley Irrigation District in Chinook received one of the grants, which funded half of its $524,000 project to replace open lateral with more than 13,000 feet of buried pipe.

The lateral had experienced high seepage, operating at 17-50 percent efficiency. The buried pipe will save about 1,000 acre-feet annually - an acre-foot supports a family of four to six for a year.

As Reclamation provides water, we must take environmental concerns into account. On July 8, Reclamation and two other federal agencies, the State of Montana, and a national conservation group signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the benefit of fish species whose habitat is affected by the Lower Yellowstone Diversion Dam.

Reclamation seeks to meet the needs of the fish while maintaining the water supply for project beneficiaries like you. The MOU seeks cooperation to design and install measures at the dam to allow pallid sturgeon to pass upstream and avoid being trapped in the main canal. It also requires the partners to minimize disturbances to least terns and bald eagles during any construction that takes place.

Conclusion I've always admired the spirit of those who built projects like the Lower Yellowstone. I've spent most of my life in the West, and have always been struck by Westerners' combination of independence and cooperation. As we face the challenges of today, that pioneer spirit continues to live here. Today, we celebrate 100 years of the Lower Yellowstone Project, and carry on the work that will be celebrated in the next 100 years.