St. Mary Aging Water Works Tour

Written by: Jack Conner, MTAO

The St. Mary rehab tour begins with a group orientation of the project and water features.
The St. Mary rehab tour begins with a group orientation of the project and water features.

Located in the northern reaches of Montana, just a stone's throw from Canada, the St. Mary River flows out of beautiful Glacier National Park, through the Blackfeet Reservation and then into Canada.

As part of the Milk River Project, the St. Mary Diversion Dam, located just north of Lower St. Mary Lake, was built to start water running on a course through a 29 mile canal system, and finally into the North Fork of the Milk River where it continues through Canada for approximately 220 miles before it flows back in into the United States.

The Milk River Project was authorized in 1903 as one of the first of five projects ever autho­rized by Congress for Reclamation to design and build.

St. Mary was authorized as a single purpose project for the purpose of water supply. This project provides benefits for tribal nations, farmers, municipalities, flood control, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

The diversion dam, head gates, drops, canals and other man-made water control features have helped support irrigation needs of farms and ranches since the early 1900s.

Irrigation for crops such as hay and wheat ensure the importance of water from St. Mary River Project as a very valuable resource to the sustainability of Montana's agricultural based economy.

The St. Mary Diversion Dam headworks and other features have reached their expected design life over the last 100 years, requiring mostly replacement of concrete structures exposed to the weather conditions Montana has to offer, and the pressure and friction of flowing water.

Significant repairs, and in some cases replacement, is needed to prevent further degradation of the St. Mary diversion works.

The Montana Area Office, which provides management of this project, has been heavily involved with the Lt. Governor's St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group (SMRWG), and Milk River Joint Board of Control (MRJBOC) for several years attempting to develop solutions for funding of the initial estimated $40 million dollars to replace the diversion dam.

Milk River water users pay almost 74 percent to operate, maintain and replace these structures.

The SMRWG is made up of stakeholders, Federal and State agency officials, and was organized for the purpose of strategizing the means to fund the initial and long term phases of this project.

Also of importance is the role St. Mary River plays in the sustainability of native fish populations.

The St. Mary Diversion Dam inhibits the migration of the endangered bull trout which inhabits the St. Mary River system. To enable the species to proliferate within its natural range, measures need to be implemented to allow the fish to get over the diversion dam structure and into natural spawning habitat.

Also, with no current barriers to the irrigation canal, fish have the ability to swim into the canal and become entrained, which could cause some mortality to the species after dewatering the canal system. Constructing fish screens as part of the replacement of the dam structure will help ensure that fish entrainment will no longer be an issue.

The SMRWG and MRJBOC, along with Montana's Lieutenant Governor Angela McLean, and Congressional representatives, toured the Project on October 14.

Having these officials present provided them an opportunity to observe the decaying water structures first hand.

"The governor's office understands the direct and indirect effect of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Project on the local economy," said Lt. Governor McLean.

Seeing first-hand the complexity of this irrigation project helps us understand what is needed to keep this infrastructure functioning. Our Montana economy was founded on agriculture and remains a critical component of that economy."

The Milk River Joint Board of Control is an organization of eight irrigation districts representing the Milk River Project, working together with Reclamation to effectively manage resources.

Jennifer Patrick, Project Manager for the MRJBOC stated, "We talk about how the Milk River being the 'Lifeline of the Hi-Line,' but until you are living it every day you really don't understand what that actually means.

"To the Milk River irrigators, in dry years, ninety percent of their water supply comes from the St. Mary Project. Without such diversions, the Milk River Basin would become strictly dryland farming.

"This is approximately 820 family farms and over 121,000 acres that would be taken out of irrigation production, sending the local economy and tax assessments into a downward spiral. We are truly at a unique and challenging economic crossroads. The project irrigators are quickly reaching their max ability to pay as they try to tackle the aging infrastructure throughout the Milk River Basin. As the costs continue to rise we continue to get asked by project irrigators how to return our acres. That is something the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group and Joint Board of Control are working together on trying to avoid," Patrick said.

The Montana Area Office staff works hard to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders to provide critically needed resources while rehabilitating over 100 year old water structures. Issues such as tribal water rights, international water rights, and working to accommodate endangered species are challenges with complexity. The St. Mary Rehabilitation Project Tour provided MTAO the ability to foster those relation­ships and build new ones. And finally, allowing our leadership to see the critical need for funding and what is at stake to Milk River Project customers and Montana's economy.


Workers completing concrete repairs on St. Mary’s Diversion Dam.

Published on October 19, 2015