News Release Archive

Milk River irrigation season comes to an end

Joint News Release, USBR and Montana DNRC

Media Contact: USBR: Brittany Jones , 406-247-7611,
DNRC: John Grassy, 406-444-0465,

For Release: July 31, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. – The 2020 irrigation operations season on the Milk River will be ramping down for all junior Milk River irrigators 45 days sooner than normal due to water supply shortages directly related to the repair work of St. Mary Canal infrastructure. Stored water released from Fresno Reservoir after July 31 will be limited to municipal water supplies under Reclamation contract and for the Fort Belknap Indian Irrigation Project. Fort Belknap will continue to irrigate using their senior natural flow right and storage from Fresno Reservoir.

In May, an aging concrete drop structure in northern Montana gave way during a heavy storm. Reclamation, the Milk River Joint Board of Control, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, have worked together quickly and efficiently to gain funding and begin construction for a full replacement of two drop structures. Construction crews arrived on site June 16 to begin required repairs, which are estimated to be completed sometime this fall.

The canal was constructed between 1907 and 1915 and is the primary water source for eight irrigation districts, the Fort Belknap Indian Irrigation Project, contract pumpers, and several municipalities serving approximately 110,000 acres of land.

Municipal water deliveries to about 14,000 people primarily in the communities of Havre, Chinook and Harlem will not be impacted during the repair work. While irrigation deliveries will shut off by the end of July, sufficient water will be maintained in Fresno Reservoir to continue Municipal & Industrial deliveries through the 2020-2021 fall and winter period.

Montana’s water law dictates water use based on a priority system. The Fort Belknap Indian Tribes have the senior water right in the basin for 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) which is equivalent to 20 bathtubs per second. Current natural flow in the Milk River Basin is less than 125 cfs, and based on forecasted weather conditions, is not expected to increase. Reclamation’s Milk River Project users are ceasing irrigation operations, and all junior natural flow right holders are required to stop using water to protect the deliveries to Fort Belknap and the municipalities.

“The failure of St. Mary Canal infrastructure has threatened the most important industry of all Indian and non-Indian people relying on the Milk River for our livelihoods—agriculture,” said President Andrew Werk, Jr., President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the governing body of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes on the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has determined the permanent repairs of Drop 2 and Drop 5 of the St. Mary Canal qualify to receive Emergency Extraordinary Maintenance (EXM) funding under Public Law 111-11, 35-percent of which will be non-reimbursable. The replacement of the structures is estimated to cost approximately $8 million.

The total project financing package will include funding from the State of Montana and project users in addition to federal funding. The Milk River Irrigation Project Joint Board of Control will enter into a contract for the repayment of EXM funds as required under 43 U.S.C.A §510b(c) 2.

“The water supply shortage is difficult for everyone in the Milk River Basin both in the United States and Canada. Permanent repairs to the St. Mary Canal drop structures are currently underway in support of a more reliable future water supply,” said Reclamation Montana Area Manager Steve Davies. “The repairs, along with diligent water management, should lead to improved water supplies in the coming year.”

“If basin water users can work as well together as the Joint Board has done bringing the users and agencies together on replacing failed infrastructure, we will make it through the water shortages this year with hope for the future,” said John Tubbs, Director of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

# # #

The Bureau of Reclamation is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior and is the nation's largest wholesale water supplier and second largest producer of hydroelectric power. Our facilities also provide substantial flood control, recreation opportunities, and environmental benefits. Visit our website at and follow us on Twitter @USBR; Facebook @bureau.of.reclamation; LinkedIn @Bureau of Reclamation; Instagram @bureau_of_reclamation; and YouTube @reclamation.