Thursday, July 18, 2024

Canal siphon failures not a matter of if, but when

by Daily Inter Lake
| June 23, 2024 12:00 AM

Along with the torrent of gushing water that flooded Babb due to catastrophic siphon eruptions on the St. Mary Canal last week will be serious economic consequences for north-central Montana’s agricultural community whose livelihood is reliant on this aging water system. 

The siphons pull water from the St. Mary River east of Glacier National Park and into the Milk River that runs from the Blackfeet Reservation into southern Alberta then down along the Hi-Line from Havre to Fort Peck.  

This water is used to irrigate the northern Montana prairie — more than 120,000 acres — as well as serving approximately 20,000 residents through municipal water systems in Havre, Chinook and Harlem. 

In a dry year, the Milk River Project’s system of canals and siphons can deliver up to 80% of the annual water supply for users along this stretch. But after the siphon explosions, it’s possible some farmers will run out of water this summer by mid to late July. 

Recognizing the urgency for relief for hundreds of Montana farmers and ranchers, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines last week set aside their political swords to put Montanans first.  

In an increasingly rare moment of unity, the Senate duo resurrected the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act that would ratify water rights and help fund repairs on the St. Mary Canal to the tune of $275 million. This is on top of the $100 million Tester had already secured through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the St. Mary diversion dam replacement project. 

Daines and Tester had helped pass the same compact through the Senate earlier in the year as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, but the Republican-led House stripped the deal from the final package. This go-around, their compact was approved in the Senate as its own legislation. 

Tester hammered home the dire need to get the deal done in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. 

“The House needs to put aside politics and pass this bill,” Montana’s senior senator demanded. “Farmers’ operations that have been generational in this region’s livelihood are on the line. Water for municipalities is on the line. This is no time to play politics.” 

Thankfully, it appears Congressman Ryan Zinke is on the same page, as the Republican representing Western Montana introduced similar legislation in the House last week that would deliver $300 million to rehabilitate the St. Mary Canal while also providing a “fair and final settlement” on water rights. Zinke now must wield his influence to get either his or the Senate legislation to President Biden’s desk. 

There’s a lesson to learn in every failure. It the case of this disaster, it’s that deferred maintenance and the perpetual refusal to fund capital improvement projects eventually catches up. Just look to Bigfork’s downtown bridge as one local example of how the proverbial can was kicked down the road until it was too late. 

Similarly, the Milk River Project has long needed rehabilitation and everyone knew it — the siphon failures weren’t a matter of if, but when. 

As Blackfeet Water Department Director K. Webb Galbreath told the Missoulian, the system is “just old. It’s 50 years past its prime.”

The siphon failures serve as a stark reminder of the importance of investing in critical infrastructure like water systems, and roads and bridges. Cast aside for too long, and the small leak eventually gushes an economic disaster.