On May 17, the long-feared happened—the catastrophic failure of drop structure 5 in the St. Mary unit of Montana’s Milk River Project. Unless and until the St. Mary unit is repaired, it will not be possible to replenish the project’s storage, threatening the agricultural producers and municipalities that rely on its water. Much of this July/August issue of Irrigation Leader is devoted to this critical situation and how to resolve it.
Our cover interview features Jennifer Patrick of the Milk River Joint Board of Control and Marko Manoukian of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, two individuals who are working on the ground to facilitate the drop 5 repair. We also speak to Shelby Hagenauer and Steve Davies of the Bureau of Reclamation about the agency’s response to the drop structure failure and to Congressman Greg Gianforte and Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester about how they are advocating for Montana in the U.S. Congress. Mike Murphy of the Montana Water Resources Association gives us a Montana-wide view of the needs and top issues of water users and suppliers. We also speak with Jeanne Whiteing, an attorney and member of the Blackfeet Nation, on whose reservation the drop 5 structure stands, about how the State of Montana, Reclamation, and other entities are cooperating with the tribe to repair the structure, and with Kristal Fox, the administrator of the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s Water Resources Department, which relies in large part on water delivered by the Milk River Project.
We also speak with Raymond Bell of the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District and Doug Martin of the Kinsey Irrigation Company. These two eastern Montana irrigation districts are facing the prospect of losing access to the affordable Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program power that, for 75 years, has allowed them to provide water to dozens of local family farms. They are working hard in cooperation with the Montana congressional delegation to pass legislation that will allow them to continue to use it.
It is too easy to take our nation’s irrigation infrastructure for granted. The underfunding of aging infrastructure repairs can lead, in worst-case scenarios, to catastrophic failures like the one that happened at the St. Mary unit. The value of such infrastructure becomes vividly clear when it is lost. The consequences of such a loss are significant. We must not wait until such failures occur to understand the indispensability of our irrigation infrastructure.
Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president and CEO of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.