While many Americans from outside Montana may not be familiar with the Milk River Project or the Sidney and Kinsey Irrigation Projects, their importance goes beyond Montana’s borders. The Milk River Project alone provides water to farmers who grow enough food to feed one million people per year. In this interview, Greg Gianforte, the representative of Montana’s at-large congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, tells Irrigation Leader about the importance of Montana’s irrigated agriculture and how he is supporting it in Congress.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell our readers about your background and connection to Montana.
Greg Gianforte: I first came to Montana in a van on a junior high school trip 44 years ago. A science teacher, who had trained at Malmstrom Air Force Base and who had a passion for Montana, introduced 17 other students and me to the state. We went to Red Lodge and spent the summer in the backcountry. I knew then that I wanted to make my life in Montana. Forty years ago, I took a train from Pennsylvania to West Glacier, Montana, and hitchhiked into Spotted Bear. A friend and I hiked for 10 days across the Bob Marshall Wilderness and came out at Lincoln. The trip only reaffirmed my resolve to live in Montana and make a life here.
I ended up moving to Montana with Susan, my wife of 32 years, and we raised our four kids backpacking, hiking, and camping on our public lands. In 1998, Susan and I started Right Now Technologies in a spare room in our Bozeman home. The company grew to become the largest commercial employer in the town, creating over 500 high-paying Montana jobs and helping launch the high-tech sector in Montana.
Irrigation Leader: Why is irrigation important to Montana and the country?
Greg Gianforte: Irrigation is the lifeblood of many communities in Montana, particularly in our rural and frontier areas, where farmers and ranchers work the land to feed the world. In fact, irrigation is one reason many people moved to Montana in the early 1900s.
The Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program provides irrigation water and affordable power to many communities in eastern Montana and in the Hi-Line region. Unfortunately, most of the infrastructure was built before the 1960s and is in dire need of repair. I have consistently advocated for investment in these rural communities, which are vital to our nation’s food supply chain.
Irrigation Leader: You introduced two pieces of legislation to help irrigators in Montana. Would you explain the significance of H.R. 2492, the St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act?
Greg Gianforte: The Milk River Project, which is run by the Bureau of Reclamation, is the lifeline of Montana’s Hi-Line agricultural economy. The project was authorized in 1903 and was one of the first projects Reclamation ever designed and built. Located in north-central Montana, the Milk River Project provides water for the irrigation of about 121,000 acres of land and also supplies water to 18,000 citizens. The water helps Montana ag producers produce enough food to feed one million people each year. It also manages water for an international treaty as well as tribal water rights settlements, such as the Blackfeet Settlement.
At well over 100 years old, the Milk River Project has surpassed its expected design life. Throughout the project, regular operations and maintenance have quickly been overtaken by the replacement of critical project components like the diversion dam and drops. On May 17, drop 5 of the St. Mary unit suffered a catastrophic failure, further showing the need for immediate upgrades for the entire project. My legislation will ensure a fair cost share, with the federal government picking up 75 percent of the tab, so that the burden doesn’t fall on local water users.
Irrigation Leader: How will H.R. 3471 benefit the communities of Sidney and Kinsey in eastern Montana?
Greg Gianforte: This bill will ensure that the Sidney and Kinsey irrigation districts continue to receive Pick-Sloan project use power (PUP). The districts received power under the Pick- Sloan program for almost 75 years. After renewing their contracts nine times, Reclamation decided these districts were no longer eligible for PUP. If their contracts are not renewed at PUP rates, the Sidney and Kinsey irrigation districts’ power costs would consume 30–40 percent of their annual operating budgets, far above the current levels of 10 percent. Losing PUP would hurt Montana families, farmers, businesses, and workers, and it could put the districts out of business. Today, Sidney and Kinsey serve more than 130 family farms that irrigate nearly 12,000 acres of farmland in eastern Montana. It is imperative that we fix Reclamation’s mistake.