Irrigation Leader
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Catastrophic Failure on the Milk River Project

On May 17, a drop structure on the Milk River Project, which conveys water to the Milk River in Montana’s Hi-Line Region, failed catastrophically. The supplemental flows to the Milk River that the project was founded to supply have ceased and will not resume until the structure is repaired. While local reservoirs hold adequate water for limited operations to continue this year, the drop structure failure presages shortages and rationing for local irrigators and municipalities. 

In this interview, Jennifer Patrick, the program manager of the Milk River Joint Board of Control (MRJBOC), and Marko Manoukian, the Montana State University (MSU) extension agent in Phillips County and the local chairperson for the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, tell Irrigation Leader about this urgent problem and the prospects for reconstruction. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourselves. 

Jennifer Patrick: I am the program manager of the MRJBOC, which is made up of eight irrigation districts that serve a total of about 110,000 irrigated acres. The MRJBOC acts as a liaison between stakeholders, including the irrigators and federal, state, and tribal entities, all of whom share the goal of delivering water to the Milk River basin. I have been in my current position since April 2007. 

Marko Manoukian: By day, I’m the MSU Phillips County extension agent. I am also the chairperson of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group. The working group originated in 2003, when Lieutenant Governor Karl Ohs, who has since passed away, held a meeting in Havre to raise awareness of the fact that the State of Montana was providing money to a federal project. Ohs was from Malta, Montana, and understood the importance of the water to the Hi‑Line region of Montana. At the meeting in Havre, he had all the interested parties involved, including Walleyes Unlimited, the tribes, and the irrigators. Based on that meeting, he created the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group. I was an inaugural member of the working group and have served as a representative for Phillips County since 2003. When our local chairperson, Randy Reed, passed away, the group asked me to assume his position. Additionally, Jenn and I have acted as the coordinators of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, providing information and guidance to its members, taking input from them, and moving forward with our goal of getting legislation passed to benefit the Milk River Project. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the history of the Milk River Project? 

Jennifer Patrick: The majority of the construction of the Milk River Project was authorized in 1905 and lasted until Fresno Dam was completed in 1939. The plan was to transfer water from a basin that had abundant water to a basin where there was no water—namely, the Milk River basin. The Milk River has limited flows, so the Milk River Project brings water through a 29‑mile canal with a series of siphons, checks, wasteways, and drops that discharges water into the north fork of the Milk River, which then travels 216 miles through Alberta, Canada, before reentering the United States and depositing the water in Fresno Reservoir near Havre.

Today, the Milk River Project irrigates about 140,000 acres. That includes the land irrigated by the eight irrigation districts, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, Bowdoin Wildlife Refuge, municipalities, and individual state and private pump contracts. There are also additional tribal authorized purposes identified in the 2017 Blackfeet Compact that are being established. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you walk us through the timeline of events before the drop 5 failure on May 17?

Jennifer Patrick: About a week before the drop 5 failure, we noted another failure—there was water leaking behind a gate. It was pretty close to startup, so before it became a bigger issue, we shut down the canal; some overflows were coming through the current structures. On May 17 at about 3:00 p.m., we received a call that the drop structure had failed. In fact, only about half the water that would usually be running through the system was actually running at the time, so we were lucky—if it had been the normal amount of water, it would have taken out a lot more of the canal bank and surrounding area than it did. 

This concrete drop structure is the last of five drop structures that use gravity and siphons to convey water through the canal. We probably will never know the cause of the failure of the drop, but it was over 100 years old, so I am sure that age played a large role. 

The MRJBOC, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the State of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) conducted an engineering site inspection on May 27 to assess the damage and to determine whether an interim fix that would allow us to move water this year was feasible. The team concluded that the complexities and costs associated with an interim solution could not be justified, considering the anticipated costs and the minimal gains in water supply it would allow. Subsequently, the decision was made to immediately replace both drop 5 and drop 2, another high-risk drop structure, with the intent of completing construction by late this summer. 

Irrigation Leader: How does the drop 5 failure affect downstream water users?

Jennifer Patrick: The storage for this year is pretty decent, but the failure means that the water we have now is all we can plan on having until the structures are repaired. Fresno and Nelson Reservoirs started the year full. That allows us to deliver one round of irrigation to all the contracted acres. The irrigation districts usually are able to deliver two full rounds of irrigation, using about an acre-foot per acre each time. The failure essentially took the second round of irrigation off the table. Without a couple timely precipitation events, the farmers will be looking at crop losses. Fresno Reservoir is fed primarily by this transfer—in a dry year, 95 percent of its water is transferred through the St. Mary system to the Milk River Project. It’s a big deal for the Milk River basin on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. A few of the municipalities east of Fresno are completely dependent on this water as well. If we don’t fix the system this year, and fix it right, the storage we currently have in the basin will be depleted and we will have to rely on runoff and rain for irrigation. In that case, the cities and towns will face restrictions. The project also creates habitat for wildlife and provides water for recreational uses; we have not even begun to quantify those losses beyond this season. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps that need to be taken?

Jennifer Patrick: The MRJBOC has signed an agreement with Reclamation that temporarily transfers operations from Reclamation to the MRJBOC board and has hired a contractor. Within the next few weeks, after we secure landowner agreements and complete the permitting paperwork, the contractor will begin work on drop 5, and hopefully on drop 2 as well. We are trying to come up with the funding package for drop 2, which actually looked worse than drop 5 before the failure. This will allow us to replace the two structures at the same time. The project is also on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, so we have cultural and environmental compliances that we are working through as well. The tribe has been helpful with the processes and helping us through the requirements despite the COVID‑19 restrictions it is under.

Irrigation Leader: How long do you think the construction project will take, and what will the cost be?

Jennifer Patrick: We are looking at a 4‑month construction season, although I still hope that we can move some water before it is over. If everything goes well, water will start being delivered again in September; that depends on the Montana weather.

Irrigation Leader: How would you characterize the cooperation between MRJBOC and Reclamation? 

Jennifer Patrick: The Reclamation team has been excellent. Steve Davies of Reclamation’s area office always has his hands full, but he has made this a priority and has extended all available resources to walk us through the processes. Right now, they are probably sick of me, but I have been talking to two of the engineers on the project, Chris Gomer and Steve Darlinton, on a daily basis as we jump through hoops and try to stay ahead of the contractors’ arrival. We are also still trying to get through the irrigation season and to leave the right amount of water in storage facilities for municipal use. Clayton Jordan has been keeping up with the overwhelming change, trying to read his crystal ball, and trying to keep everyone happy. 

Even though this is a federal project, other entities have stepped up, too. The director of the DNRC, John Tubbs, has been leading the efforts of the State of Montana and has been supportive. The cities, towns, and other entities that sit on the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group have all been supportive as well. They are always asking what they can do for us. As I said before, we are in Blackfeet country, and the Blackfeet Nation has been supporting and helping us. The tribe also has a stake in this: As the compact was settled in 2017, the tribe can develop its 5,000 acre-feet of water right now, but with the system down, it’s pretty hard to deliver any water or establish new contracts. COVID‑19 has not helped us at all there—many tribal offices are shut down, but everyone is doing their best to get to the table and work on the permitting and compliances. The International Joint Commission (IJC) and the National Resources Conservation Service have also stepped up and are trying to take part in the team and processes. That, to my mind, is positive. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the anticipated overall cost of repairing drops 2 and 5? 

Jennifer Patrick: Engineering estimates suggest that there has been a lot of damage; a lot of material has left the site. Until we get in there and get things going, it will be really hard to identify exact numbers. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress and your congressional delegation? 

Jennifer Patrick: Help us come up with a reasonable cost-share agreement for the entire rehabilitation of the project. Our state, local, and federal legislators have been supportive and have helped to push Commissioner Burman of Reclamation to help us with financing. To the congressional delegation, I would say that the aging infrastructure of this project needs to be addressed. In addition to these two drop structures, there are issues with a diversion dam and other parts of the water transfer in this 29‑mile canal and project. We have quite a few other structures in dire need of repairs. This failure is already causing a loss of water to the project. If another structure fails in a year or two, shutting down another system, the Milk River basin will not survive. 

Marko Manoukian: A specific message for Congress is that Reclamation can only work within the laws that currently exist. All along, we’ve been asking for a cost allocation change. Roughly 75 percent of the project and maintenance costs need to be covered by the users; 25 percent is covered by the federal government. We’d like to invert those numbers. All the structures in this project are more than 104 years old. Just addressing one element is not going to be a solution. We need a long-term plan to address all these things, just like Goshen County did last year. It is in the same boat we are, with a tremendous amount of aging infrastructure. 

Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else you would like to discuss? 

Marko Manoukian: Water is a basic human need. Now that our system is compromised, not only are irrigators going to need to figure out how to maintain productivity, but local communities are going to be saddled with rationing water. Our friends to the north are going to be facing a real issue; they only have 3 months’ worth of storage for Milk River Canada. They’ll feel the effects even more, but even Chinook, the Fort Belknap Agency, Harlem, and Havre are going to see rationing as time goes on. 

Jennifer Patrick: The situation has shone light on the fact that the town of Milk River, Alberta, has wells that supply water to the towns of Coutts, Alberta, and Sweet Grass, Montana. The town of Milk River has 3–4 months’ worth of storage, but otherwise, they’re 100 percent dependent on this system as well. They’re having conversations on their response, interim solutions, and what this all means. Can Canada actually provide funding? As in the United States, the process is cumbersome and slow. Those conversations are happening at the IJC level. 

Jennifer Patrick is the program manager of the Milk River Joint Board of Control. She can be contacted at jenn@mrjboc.com or (406) 9453383. Marko Manoukian is the Montana State University extension agent in Phillips County and the local chairperson for the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group. He can be contacted at pcextn@mtintouch.net or (406) 654‑2543.