In 2017, two Montana irrigation water entities, the Kinsey Irrigation Company (KIC) of Custer County and the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District (SWUID) of Richland County, were informed that their contract for affordable project use power (PUP) generated by the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program would not be renewed. Both entities had been using PUP for 75 years, and an end to their eligibility would likely have put them out of business. The only solution to this problem was specific congressional authorization for the two entities to use PUP. Thanks to determined work by Montana’s congressional delegation in Washington, DC, President Trump signed Public Law 116-191 on October 30, 2020, which allowed the KIC and the SWUID to continue using PUP. In this interview, SWUID President Raymond Bell and KIC Project Coordinator Doug Martin tell Irrigation Leader about their experience with the legislative process.
Irrigation Leader: Please introduce yourselves and tell us about your backgrounds.
Raymond Bell: I was born and raised in Sidney, Montana, on a farm in the SWUID. I haven’t gone far from home. After I got married, my dad got us into the trucking business, in which I worked for about 25 years before selling our trucking company and going back to farming. We invested in some more land for the farm in the irrigation district, put in some irrigation pivots, and made some other irrigation improvements. I joined the SWUID board in 1996 and became president of the district in 1998. I’ve held that position ever since. The SWUID has been pumping water since the early 1940s. The district was put together and founded in 1937 through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was granted Pick-Sloan power in 1946. That power source was pretty much what got the district going. Right now, we support about 48 families. The district serves about 5,000 acres. The Yellowstone River is our source of water. We have four pump stations along the Yellowstone River as well as a couple of relift stations.
Doug Martin: I was raised in Ohio and Pennsylvania, leaving in 1986. I bounced around Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming for a decade before settling in Custer County, Montana, in 1996. My cousin had a family farm, and all I ever wanted to do was have one of my own, but it didn’t work out given the state of the dairy industry in the early 1980s. I ended up going into general contracting, and I had been a carpenter for about 25 years before I had the opportunity to buy a farm in Kinsey, Montana, in 2006. That is how I got involved with the KIC. I had never been around irrigation prior to that.
The irrigation system run by the KIC has been around for well over 100 years. The water right on the Yellowstone River goes back to 1896. Two projects were started and failed before the current one was instituted in 1936 by the WPA and the federal government. They built 80 units out here—basically homes with land to which people could move to get started farming, later paying back the Farm Service Agency at a low rate. In 1946, the farmers served by the irrigation system bought the Kinsey Irrigation Project from the federal government; it has been a private company ever since. In 1946, the KIC also signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to receive power from the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. We have done that ever since. Kinsey’s service area is currently 6,640 acres. About 80 families make a living off those acres.
Irrigation Leader: When did it become clear that your situation would require legislation to resolve, and what were your next steps at that point?
Doug Martin: In 2017, we were notified that our PUP contract would not be renewed. We tried to resolve the situation via a couple of avenues, but nothing panned out. At that point, Raymond and I made a game plan to get some get some help from Water Strategies and see if we could resolve the problem through the legislative process. After exhausting all our efforts with Reclamation, even meeting the commissioner in person in Washington, DC, we met with our legislative delegation and decided that we were going to have to have legislation enacted to allow us to keep using PUP.
Raymond Bell: We received the same letter around the same time the KIC did. We took our response a step further and traveled to Reclamation’s Denver regional office to see if there was anything the staff there could do. They indicated that the solution would have to come from Congress and that we would need specific congressional authorization to stay in the Pick-Sloan pumping group. We hired an attorney to research the history of our project, to figure out when we started receiving PUP, and to record all the steps we had taken to retain our PUP. All that was summarized and sent to Reclamation. Again, Reclamation told us that without federal ownership, it was not going to work; the solicitors had made the determination that we had received PUP due to an oversight and that in order for us to retain our Pick-Sloan power pumping contract, we would need legislative action.
Irrigation Leader: Did the attorney you hired specialize in water and irrigation matters?
Raymond Bell: He was a Montana-based attorney who did not necessarily specialize in water, but who had experience working with Reclamation. He put together some good information, but I think it was a little too late, because Reclamation’s solicitors had already finalized their opinion. We didn’t want to push the issue because we were told that filing a lawsuit against Reclamation would only make our problem worse. Our best route was congressional action.
Irrigation Leader: What kind of input did you provide during the crafting of the legislation?
Raymond Bell: One of the things that was most important was to provide a lot of information on the history of our two organizations so that they could see that there was a historical basis for us having PUP authority.
Irrigation Leader: Did you also cooperate with your congressional delegation to make sure that the legislation was written in a way that would resolve your problem?
Doug Martin: Reclamation made draft services available to us. We would send Reclamation a draft and it would review it and send it back. The congressional delegation provided input on the drafts as well. It was modified many times until it was acceptable to all parties.
Raymond Bell: To get the Montana legislative delegation in Congress on board, we had to prove to the legislators that we had a legitimate case and that we had to get our problem corrected. We demonstrated that we were not asking for anything new; we just needed to fix an oversight made by Reclamation 75 years ago. Getting our Montana delegation onboard was a turning point for us.
There were concerns from Reclamation and state delegates that the draft language would set a precedent that would allow other companies and districts to receive PUP, so we had to narrow down the language so that the law would apply only to the KIC and the SWUID, which have a 75- year history of access to PUP.
Irrigation Leader: What was your experience working with your congressional delegation?
Raymond Bell: I think our first step was to contact Greg Gianforte, who was Montana’s at-large representative in the House of Representatives at the time. He was helpful. Senator Steve Daines and his staff were also great to work with once they understood the problem and felt confident that they could help us fix it. Once we hired Water Strategies, we didn’t communicate with the delegation directly as much. Most things went through Water Strategies at that point. The third member of our delegation, Senator Jon Tester, was also receptive to helping us. In the end, he cosponsored the bill.
Doug Martin: Representative Gianforte and Senator Daines took extraordinary measures to get this legislation through a very divided Congress. We appreciate their efforts and their willingness to stay with it and to take some unconventional measures to pass this law before the end of our contract.
Irrigation Leader: The new law caps your use of PUP at its current level. Will that pose any difficulties for future operations or growth?
Doug Martin: I don’t think it will pose a difficulty for either of our entities. Part of the reason for that is that we are using the water we pump more and more efficiently, with the result that we are actually pumping less water and using less electricity. We should have plenty of room to stay within the bounds of the current rate of delivery. If we go beyond the cap, we would have to purchase electricity from a different source, such as the Western Area Power Administration or a local utility.
Raymond Bell: I should also reiterate that it was important for us to make clear that we were only asking to be able to continue with our current arrangement. We felt that it was appropriate to explicitly state this in the statute, and it was requested by the bill writers.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other irrigation district managers who need to work with their legislators in Washington to pass a law like this?
Raymond Bell: First, I pray that no other irrigation district would have an issue like ours, but of course, other issues may come up. My first piece of advice is to start by getting your state legislators on board. It was also critical for us to have a contact in Washington, DC, namely Water Strategies, to help us out. We are farmers, and we have obligations and work at home. It was important to have a contact in Washington monitoring things and keeping them moving.
Doug Martin: It is important to act quickly and decisively and to keep things going forward. The legislative process is extremely slow and cumbersome, but it does finally work if you have your congressional delegation behind you and if keep reminding them that the law addresses a specific need on the part of their constituents.
Raymond Bell: I learned that legislation in Congress moves in jerks. Things go slowly most of the time, but when something happens, it happens quickly. Like Doug, I learned that you have to keep your representatives informed of the problem. What is a huge problem to you may just be one small part of all the issues they’re working on in Congress. Monthly and even weekly communication with our representatives was important.
Irrigation Leader: Now that the PUP issue has been resolved, what are your districts’ top issues for 2021?
Doug Martin: Our goal for 2021 is to actually become an irrigation district. The KIC is currently a private nonprofit company, as recognized by the State of Montana. Because of that, there are certain opportunities that we can’t take advantage of—grants and things of that nature. Our situation is unusual—most irrigation systems are districts. We are working through a Montana attorney and are currently in the process of petitioning the court to become a district. Second, we will continue to improve the efficiency of our system by reducing the water loss caused by evaporation, seepage, and other factors.
Raymond Bell: Our number 1 goal is to get our contract with Reclamation in place now that the legislation is passed. We recently received our PUP power renewal contract for review from Reclamation. We anticipate having the contact signed and in place within the next month or so. The contracts offered mirror those of other PUP users. The KIC and SWUID systems are being treated exactly the same as the others in the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program, with the only changes being location and contract rate of delivery. Our number 2 goal, as Doug stated, is to improve the irrigation efficiency of our district even more by adding additional pipelines and pivots.