Chairman Domenici and distinguished members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Welcome to Montana and thank you for holding this field hearing in Havre, Montana to discuss the critical need to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion Works of the Milk River Project and, address associated concerns of the Blackfeet Tribe, Ft Belknap Indian Community, and the Milk River Basin.
My name is Randy Reed. I am the Co-Chair of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group with Montana Lt. Governor John Bohlinger.
I would like to express my thanks and sincere appreciations to Senator Burns, Senator Baucus and Representative Rehberg. As soon as Montana’s Congressional Delegation became aware of the seriousness of the problems they took on the issue as a top priority.
My great grandfather homesteaded in the Milk River Valley and was among the founders supporting the construction of the Milk River Project at the turn of the 20th century. Irrigation allowed my great grandfather to settle in Northern Montana and endure. I began farming and ranching in 1984 after graduating from Montana State University with an Agricultural Business Degree. Today, my family benefits from these same water resource facilities and we are able to raise irrigated certified seed potatoes, alfalfa hay and malt barley. We also rely on the project for our drinking water and enjoy the many recreational opportunities supported by the St. Mary Diversion Works.
Senate Bill 3563 recognizes the critical need to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works. A system wide investigation showed critical shortcomings in the system infrastructure and operation impacts to the environment. The steel siphons are plagued with slope stability problems and leaks, and the concrete in the hydraulic drop structures is severely deteriorating. Landslides along the canal and the deteriorated condition of the structures make the canal unreliable today as a water source.
The State of Montana has spent over half a million dollars to prepare preliminary engineering and economic studies. S.3563 addresses the immediate need to begin the final planning and environmental analysis required to reconstruct the facilities. The bill also allows Reclamation to develop a “strategic plan” and reimbursable funding mechanism that provides critical support should a catastrophic failure occur prior to rehabilitation. It is time for us to be “pro-active” on these issues rather then “reactive”.
The proposed legislation addresses a core issue – cost-share. The ability of irrigators to pay for capital investment represents the crux of the financial crisis associated with this project. As originally authorized, the St. Mary Diversion Works are operated for the single purpose of irrigation. As such, over the last 90 years, nearly 100% of the cost to operate and maintain the diversion infrastructure has been borne by irrigators within the eight irrigation districts of the Milk River Project
Reclamation’s 2005 Current Use Benefits Analysis showed large public benefits accrue from the existence of the St. Mary Diversion Works. A recent preliminary economic study authored by Dr. John Duffield shows that approximately 32% of the annual economic benefit associated with the by the St. Mary Diversion Works accrue to irrigated agriculture. The remaining 68% accrues to the public in the form of municipal water, recreation, fish and wildlife, and extensive riparian areas. However, the 1905 authorization does not reflect this new reality. As a result, irrigators within the Milk River Project are being asked to subsidize the Nation for benefits the public enjoys.
Although rehabilitation of the St. Mary Diversion Works is at the heart of Senate Bill 3563, the proposed legislation addresses other water related needs in the St. Mary and Milk River Basin. S. 3563 contains provisions to address project related concerns on the Blackfeet Reservation and provides funding for the Ft. Belknap Indian Community to study the feasibility of building a rural water system on their reservation. Senate Bill 3563 also authorizes Reclamation to prepare a feasibility study on the need to rehabilitate water diversion and delivery structures within the Milk River Project.
Mr. Chairman, the people of the Milk River Basin and the State of Montana are not looking for a handout through Senate Bill 3563. Residents of the Milk River Basin have worked extremely hard to bring attention to this critical issue. The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group represents a broad coalition of basin interests including the Milk River Irrigation Districts, the Blackfeet Tribe, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, municipalities, business interests, and recreational and fishery interests in the Milk River Basin. The residents of the Milk River Basin are hard working people who over generations of families have carved out a living and built communities in this beautiful landscape. With an average per capita income of $14, 585, residents of the Hi-line are not rich. Yet counties, communities and individuals have donated over $275,657 in support of this project.
Now we need the active cooperation and participation of the Bureau of Reclamation. We have tried to constructively engage Reclamation in this project and have been repeatedly told that there is nothing the agency can do under current Reclamation law. Passage of Senate Bill 3563 will allow Reclamation to work with us collectively for an amicable solution.
My family’s future, my communities’ future, and the future of the Milk River basin is dependent on passage of Senate Bill 3563. Does the Unites States close the book on 100 years of history and investment or do we reinvest in our country’s future? Our grandfathers had the vision to establish this project to build Montana communities. This legacy is ours now. Passage of S 3563 is not just about the fate of the farmers and ranchers but rather Montana’s Milk River Basin. Rehabilitation is a legacy that we will pass on to our children and our grandchildren and the many generations beyond
Again, I appreciate this opportunity to testify.