Hearings and Business Meetings

Sep 01 2006

01:00 PM

Full Committee Hearing- S. 3563

1 SUB Drive Havre, Montana Student Union Ballroom, Student Union Building, Montana State University 01:00 PM

Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger

Co-Chair, St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group

Chairman Domenici, Ranking Member Bingaman, members of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, my name is John Bohlinger. I am Montana’s Lt. Governor, and for the past two years I have had the privilege of serving with Mr. Randy Reed as co-chair of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group.

As Montana’s Lt. Governor I welcome you to our state. I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the critically needed rehabilitation of the St. Mary Diversion Works, and to address associated concerns of the Blackfeet Tribe, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Milk River basin. I would also like to express my thanks to Senator Baucus, Senator Burns and Congressman Rehberg for making this issue a priority in the halls of Congress.

I am here today as Governor Schweitzer’s representative, and as the spokesperson for the State of Montana.

Speaking directly to Senate Bill 3563, I would like to acknowledge the role the St. Mary Working Group has played in crafting this legislation. The sixteen members of the Working Group represent a broad partnership of stakeholders; including, the Milk River Irrigation Districts, the Blackfeet Tribe, the Ft. Belknap Indian Community, municipalities, county governments, business interests, and recreational and fishery interests in the Milk River basin.

The catalyst for bringing the Working Group together has been the simple understanding of a shared fate: the negative impacts of failure will be borne by all, just as the benefits of success will be shared by all. Senate Bill 3563 is the culmination of three years of hard work by the St. Mary Working Group and the State of Montana.

We also recognize that the entirety of the St. Mary Diversion Works is located within the boundaries of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. As such, the sovereignty of tribe must be recognized and respected as a solution is crafted.

The St. Mary Diversion Works are as old the Bureau of Reclamation itself. Energy to construct the 30-mile canal system was provided by steam, horse, and manual labor. Now—after almost 100 years of service—the St. Mary system has reached the end of its useful life.

The steel siphons are plagued with slope instability and are leaking. The five concrete drop structures have deteriorated to the point of rubble. Slides and slope failure is widespread along the canal route. It is not a question of if—but when—the system will fail.

Mr. Chairman, loss of this infrastructure would have devastating economic and social impacts to the Milk River basin and State of Montana. The St. Mary Diversion Works support over 10 percent of Montana’s irrigated agricultural economy.

Without water from the St. Mary River the Milk River would run dry six out of every ten years, and the impacts would extend beyond agriculture. Multiple Hi-line communities depend upon St. Mary Diversion Works for their municipal water. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge also depends upon water from the St. Mary River. A sudden failure of the system would result in environmental damage to the St. Mary’s watershed on the Blackfeet Reservation—in a culturally sensitive area that contains critical habitat for the threatened cutthroat and bull trout.

Also at stake is the United States’ water right for the St. Mary River under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. A failure of the St.Mary Diversion Works would preclude the United States from exercising its entitlement to a share of the St. Mary River.

The State of Montana has taken a leadership role and contributed over $1.9 million towards preliminary engineering, economic studies, and administrative and technical support to the Working Group. At the request of the Schweitzer Administration, the State Legislature authorized $10 million in non-federal cost share for reconstructing the St. Mary Diversion Works.

One of the most important provisions in S.3563 is the establishment of an affordable cost share agreement for water users who hold repayment contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation. The 1905 authorization for the St. Mary Diversion Works is for the single purpose of irrigation. As a result nearly 100% of the cost to operate and maintain the diversion infrastructure has been borne by irrigators.

A recent study demonstrates that 32% of the annual economic benefit derived from the St. Mary system accrues to irrigated agriculture. The remaining 68% accrues to the public in the form of municipal water, recreation, and fish and wildlife benefits.

In 1905, the Secretary of the Interior authorized construction of the St. Mary Diversion Works in order to provide a stable source of water for irrigation to the lower Milk River valley. As a result of this early 20th century project, settlers moved to the valley and a vibrant regional economy based on agriculture grew out of a dry prairie landscape.

The United States Government owns these facilities and it is time Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to rehabilitate the system in a timely and cost efficient manner. The solution must respect the sovereignty of Blackfeet Tribe, recognize the broad range of public benefits that accrue from the water, and be affordable to irrigators and municipalities.

Again, I thank you for the opportunity to testify.