Irrigation Leader
Photo of the Milk River flowing through a valley with hills in the background
Featured,  Interview

Maintaining Century-Old Infrastructure in Montana

The eight irrigation districts of Montana’s Milk River Joint Board of Control (MRJBOC, or Joint Board) deliver water to approximately 110,000 irrigated acres of alfalfa, wheat, and barley across the region known as Montana’s Hi-Line. The districts are supplied by the Milk River Project, an early Reclamation project much of whose infrastructure dates back to the early 20th century. More than half of the project’s supply derives from the St. Mary River, water from which is routed into southern Alberta before flowing back down into Montana via the Milk River.

Jennifer Patrick has been the project manager for the MRJBOC since 2007, serving as a liaison to all its member agencies. In this interview with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill, Ms. Patrick speaks about the MRJBOC’s current priorities and the challenges of maintaining, repairing, and replacing the Milk River Project’s aging infrastructure.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you ended up in your current position.

Jennifer Patrick: I have been with the MRJBOC for around 12 years now. When I started, I had no water experience at all—my background is in computer science and computer, engineering. I applied for my first position because the listing said you needed to like to travel, be good with computers, and be able to communicate with a variety of people. Over the last 12 years, I have gotten quite an education in water.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the MRJBOC.

Jennifer Patrick: The MRJBOC was formed in 1999 with the help of the State of Montana, the Bureau of Reclamation, and Alan Mikkelsen, who is currently senior advisor to the secretary of the interior, in order to ensure the equitable and efficient delivery of water in the Milk River basin. A good team formed the MRJBOC to start talking and cooperating on important water issues in the basin.

The board is composed of 10 irrigators—five from the upper district and five from the lower district. The upper district has five irrigation districts: Fort Belknap (not to be confused with the Fort Belknap Tribe), Alfalfa, and Zurich, which all share one ditch; as well as Harlem and Paradise. In the lower district, there are three irrigation districts: Dodson, Malta, and Glasgow. To make up for the discrepancy in number between the five irrigation districts of the upper district and the three in the lower, the two largest districts in the lower district, Malta and Glasgow, send two representatives to the Joint Board. So there are only eight irrigation districts on the Joint Board but there are 10 voting members. Right now, Wade Jones from Malta Irrigation District is the president and Joel Pruttis from Paradise is the vice president—one person from the upper district and one person from the lower. It works pretty well.

The MRJBOC also involves some ex officio members from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, and the Bureau of Reclamation, who are very active in the organization as well. There is a tribal component to the Joint Board as well, but at this time a member is not active.

The MRJBOC makes most of the water allotment and delivery decision for the Milk River Project because all the districts are represented, speaking not with eight different voices but with one voice.

Joshua Dill: Does the board mainly serve to coordinate the activities of its members, or does it also run infrastructure of its own?

Jennifer Patrick: Each district runs and maintains its own day-to-day infrastructure—we try not to get involved in that. The Joint Board makes large decisions. For example, every year the Bureau of Reclamation brings the Joint Board its budget, and the Joint Board collaborates with it on larger facility projects. Right now, we are working on rehabilitating the second drop on our system. The Joint Board also sets water allotments, controls and tracks diversions from Fresno and Nelson Reservoirs, and works with the other entities in the basin to manage the valuable resource of Milk River water.

Joshua Dill: What are the main infrastructure challenges that the Joint Board is currently facing or working on?

Jennifer Patrick: Infrastructure expenditures on the St. Mary system are on a 75/25 split: 75 percent of the expenditures are paid by the irrigators, 25 percent by the federal government. Right now, a couple of the projects on the list are a diversion dam, last estimated at $40 million; a siphon that would cost millions of dollars; and up to five drop structures that would cost more than $2 million apiece. Seventy-five percent of any those numbers isn’t doable. Right now, cost is the largest stumbling block we have when talking about infrastructure. If the proportions of the cost share were flipped and we only had to pay 25 percent, it would be a huge improvement.

Joshua Dill: What are the strategies you have considered for addressing that issue?

Jennifer Patrick: We are relying heavily on Senator Daines, Senator Tester, and Congressman Gianforte to help us address this cost-share issue legislatively. We hope we will have something moving through Congress in the near future.

We have also investigated different funding strategies for our upcoming projects. The State of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has been helpful in working with us on grants and funds to enable us to pursue creative solutions. We are trying to work outside the box. Otherwise, we will continue to move toward catastrophic failure.

Joshua Dill: How old is the existing infrastructure?

Jennifer Patrick: I think that everything in the St. Mary region is original, meaning that it dates back to the early 1900s, aside from some updated drop structures and some siphon section repairs. Fresno Dam was built in 1939. Nelson Reservoir underwent some Safety of Dams projects in 2017, but the construction is original and dates back to 1914–15. It is tough to work with 1920s concrete because it is so degraded. Repairs are not always an option. Almost everything needs to be fully replaced.

We have been playing catch-up for the past 100 years. That’s tough. The crops haven’t changed in the basin since the mid-1900s: hay, grasses, and corn. The revenue stream hasn’t varied since the 1930s, and cattle and commodity prices aren’t helping. We are just trying to keep the St. Mary system operating. Ideally, you plan your operations and maintenance budget 5 years out, but we don’t have that luxury. We don’t have the funding, and our system has been on the verge of catastrophic failure for the last 10 years.

Fresno Dam and Reservoir are a little different. Aside from the fact that the reservoir loses about 500 acre-feet of storage a year to sedimentation, the facilities are in relatively good shape. There are some concerns about cracking and settling on the dam itself, which are being addressed through a Safety of Dams project last estimated at around $80 million. Besides that project, the only current need is for minor rehabilitation of the spillway.

Joshua Dill: Has the MRJBOC been able to find any innovative technological solutions for repairs in the absence of funding for those larger projects?

Jennifer Patrick: Not really. One of the problems is that a lot of new technologies have not received Reclamation’s stamp of approval. We may pay for the majority of the operations and maintenance on the facility, but we don’t own the title or insure the facilities, they do. That means we need to adhere to their standards and directives.

Joshua Dill: What are some of the larger infrastructure projects that you would like to work on? You are considering building a completely new dam, correct?

Jennifer Patrick: I wouldn’t say we are considering a new dam—we are replacing an old structure that is barely making it through the seasons. There’s a version of that dam project being developed by Reclamation that is estimated at $40 million. On top of the aging infrastructure, we also have to keep a population of endangered bulltrout in mind, which makes the facility much more complex. The fish ladders and screens and maintenance turned what would have been a $15–20 million facility into a $40 million dam.

A study carried out in 2007 estimated the cost of rehabilitating the entire St. Mary system at $138 million. Unsurprisingly, that cost has now compounded to over $200 million and continues to grow. We are going to have to get creative, because that is a huge ask for Congress, the irrigators, or the State of Montana. The State of Montana did put up a $10 million bonding authority to try to get the project moving, though at this point we have not been able to access it. To access the state bonding authority, we need a federal cost-share component, which we have not yet successfully obtained.

Joshua Dill: You mentioned that, without repair, the St. Mary system would be in danger of catastrophic failure. What would that look like?

Jennifer Patrick: In the case of a catastrophic failure, we would lose over 90 percent of the Milk River basin water in a dry year. The project is over 20 miles long. At the beginning is the diversion dam and at the end is a series of drops. If any piece of this 1900s-era system other than the very last drop fails, the system as a whole will not drop water into the Milk River. The water is moved into Canada first and then dropped back into the United States. It’s not only the Milk River irrigators who would lose their water from a St. Mary failure—it would also affect the towns in Canada and the United States that depend on the water, the Canadian irrigators, those who have pump contracts, and tribal irrigators.

Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the MRJBOC?

Jennifer Patrick: We would love a total rehabilitation to allow us to keep irrigating and to expand. The likelihood of $200 million just dropping into our laps is low, considering state and federal finances. We need to continue to work with our congressional representatives, our state legislators, the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, the DNRC, and Reclamation to eliminate the risks of catastrophic failure. We are not gaining any capacity until the canal is completely rehabilitated, but we’d like to move beyond having to always jump to put out the newest fire. We’d like to fix things up and have a reserve in our budget for emergencies. Right now, we are just trying to hold on, because a catastrophic failure would affect 150,000 acres and dry up 250 miles of Montana Hi-Line. The Milk River is something that you could jump across in a dry year. That is not a sight any of us want to see in the future.

Jennifer Patrick is the project manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control. She can be reached at jenn@mrjboc.com.