Dr. Tim Petty, the assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior, is responsible for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and, consequently, for a wide variety of issues related to water infrastructure, water resources, energy, ecosystems, and natural disasters. Dr. Petty recently traveled to western Montana to visit the St. Mary unit of the Milk River Project. While there, he met with local and tribal staff and visited all five of the unit’s drop structures, including drop 5, the structure that failed catastrophically on May 17, and drop 2, which is also being replaced this year. In this interview, Dr. Petty tells Irrigation Leader about Interior’s outlook on the Milk River Project and its work on other vital programs. 

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Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your trip to see the Milk River Project in Montana. 

Tim Petty: We toured all five drops on the canal. It’s an amazing project. It’s amazing to get out there and see the other drops that are still standing after more than 100 years. It’s beyond impressive. We already have hard equipment out there working on those projects. 

Dr. Tim Petty, Senator Steve Daines, and Reclamation’s Montana area manager, Steve Davies, on site at drop 5.

Senator Steve Daines was the main invitee. Brent Esplin, Reclamation’s director for the Missouri Basin and Arkansas– Rio Grande–Texas Gulf regions, and Steve Davies, the director of the Montana area office, were there, too. We had a roundtable discussion with state representatives. Senator Daines and I also got to meet Timothy Davis, the chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, at drop 3. The Milk River Project is an integral part of the tribe’s water resources. He was appreciative and pleased: To see us out there and to see that we already have equipment on site and that we are already delivering concrete forms was encouraging to him and his staff. The experienced Reclamation team out here has been remarkable in making sure that we have everybody at the table. Making sure the right people are there from the beginning really makes a difference. 

Irrigation Leader: What can the tribes and the irrigators expect from Interior moving forward? 

Tim Petty: The main focus with regard to the Milk River Project is getting water. The main concern we heard at the roundtable was making sure that the project has water next year. We’ve got to work hard through the summer to complete the repairs on drops 2 and 5. Beyond that, it is critical that we can provide assurance for the long term. At the roundtable, we talked about the efforts that have taken place over the last several years to maintain the other drops and the work that will be necessary in decades to come. We stopped to look at drops 1, 3, and 4. They could probably use some work in the future, but right now, they’re in pretty good shape, which is encouraging. Secretary Bernhardt, Commissioner Burman, and the Reclamation team have done an exceptional amount of work and provided up-front money to make sure that this work gets going immediately. The irrigators and others who have been affected were appreciative of the emergency extraordinary maintenance funding that we were able to provide. Reclamation staff were also appreciative—multiple people came up to Senator Daines and me to tell us that. I met with Jennifer Patrick, the program manager of the Milk River Joint Board of Control, and Marko Manoukian, the local chairperson for the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, as well. Numerous people have told me about Ms. Patrick’s hard work on collaboration, which has made all the difference in the world. 

Water infrastructure efforts are a high priority for the president. We are trying to get our local Reclamation teams the resources they need, understand their priorities and budgets, and then help state and local agencies to solve problems. Reclamation has a track record of 100 years of creativity, and that needs to continue into the future. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your other top issues at the moment? 

Tim Petty: Over the past 3½ years, we’ve focused on water supply for rural communities, water infrastructure, and problem solving. The Columbia River record of decision will be out at the end of September, 2 years ahead of schedule. We already have biological opinions from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This administration has been effective in identifying priorities and making them happen. Secretary Bernhardt is constantly pushing Commissioner Burman and me to make sure that we’re out in rural water districts, working with irrigation communities and with the municipalities and industries that are part of those small communities. They need water for life, and we are committed to working toward that. 

Irrigation Leader: What is Interior doing to keep the country secure and united? 

Tim Petty: I would point to the incredible work that Interior’s Water and Science Program and Reclamation are doing on a risk-based approach to assets for both safety and security. We are looking at what our assets are, how we manage them, how we use our facilities and build our resources around them, and how we make sure they’re secure and safe. Dam safety is another big area of focus. Reclamation’s 5,500 amazing employees do great work to make sure that their workplaces are safe and healthy. 

From a broader perspective, the water Reclamation delivers to the West and to the United States as a whole is critical to the food security and general health of our populace. 

The USGS also does vital work on volcano monitoring and early warning systems. Its network of stream gauges helps warn about floods as well as droughts. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your collaborative efforts with local, state, and federal partners? 

Tim Petty: We get together on a monthly basis with a group of federal water agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Department of Energy. One recent addition to our monthly meetings is Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker of Energy’s Office of Electricity. Reclamation is also partnering with other agencies to address critical grid and cybersecurity issues. 

We work closely with the states to make sure we understand their needs. Our federal team works side by side not only with the governors’ offices, but with state water resources divisions. The EPA and the USDA collaborate with state and local governments as well, for example in Fort Laramie, Wyoming; Nebraska; and northern Montana. 

Irrigation Leader: Finally, what should every Reclamation project beneficiary know about this administration? 

Tim Petty: We’re listening to them. We want to help them solve problems, which they’re more familiar with than we are in Washington, DC. We are listening to what they say about what they need to do their jobs. We will have their backs when disaster hits—and we know that that’s not an if but a when. 

Dr. Tim Petty is assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior.