The Sidney Water Users Irrigation District (SWUID), based in Sidney, Montana, serves water to 48 family farms across around 5,000 acres in eastern Montana. Along with its neighboring district, Kinsey Irrigation Company, SWUID is threatened with the loss of affordable project use power (PUP) from the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, which was authorized by Congress in the Flood Control Act of 1944 and which SWUID has been using for 75 years. In this interview, SWUID President Raymond Bell explains the district’s situation and what actions are needed to preserve its operations and services.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Raymond Bell: I was born and raised in Sidney, Montana, on a farm in the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District. 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. Then, we sold our trucking business off and went back to farming. We invested in some more land for the farm in the irrigation district. We 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.
Irrigation Leader: How many generations has your family been in Montana?
Raymond Bell: The farm that I was born and raised on was my grandpa’s farm, so I belong to the third generation of our family to live in Montana. My son is working for me now; he is from the fourth generation. My grandfather immigrated from France. My mom’s family came from Germany. My dad was raised in the district on a small homestead.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about SWUID.
Raymond Bell: The district has been pumping water since the early 1940s. The district was put together and founded in 1937 through the Works Progress Administration 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.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the issue you’re facing today.
Raymond Bell: We received written notice from Reclamation in July 2017 that it would not be renewing our Pick-Sloan PUP contract after its expiration on December 31, 2020. When we questioned the decision, we received a further notice from Reclamation in March 2018 that PUP was available only to authorized Reclamation projects or as otherwise specifically authorized by Congress. Reclamation stated that SWUID was not eligible to receive PUP, as it is privately owned, and that its receiving PUP had been an error from the very beginning. Our PUP contract has been renewed six times with several supplements since 1946—it is hard to believe that Reclamation staff were simply overlooking our supposed ineligibility every time. There is a lot of documented history that deals with our eligibility for Pick-Sloan power.
Irrigation Leader: What are some things SWUID has had to do to resolve this issue?
Raymond Bell: After several meetings with Reclamation at the state and regional levels, we went to Washington, DC, in January 2019 to meet with the agency on the national level. They have informed us that, to fix the problem, we now would need specific Congressional authorization. A congressional bill was drafted with the help of the Montana delegation and was reviewed by Reclamation to make sure it would fix the problem. Our bills, S. 1882 and H.R. 3471, were introduced in Congress in spring 2019. S. 1882 was recently passed by the Senate as an amendment to S. 3758, and H.R. 3471 was passed by the House of Representatives as an amendment to H.R. 2. I received a call from Congressman Greg Gianforte to personally inform me of the progress of our bill in the House, which I greatly appreciated. Both bills now await further consideration in the respective chamber. Time is an issue here, as our contract expires at the end of 2020.
It’s very important to the district to get this legislation passed this Congress. If that does not happen, we may have to shut the district down. We cannot afford to operate at the provided local cooperative rate. We would have to pass the cost increases to the farmers, and they can’t afford to pay it. It is critical at this point that we have the support of our congressional delegation in Congress.
In addition to directly affecting the livelihoods of 48 families, the loss of affordable irrigation pumping power would reduce the value of the 4,825 irrigated acres SWUID currently serves from $3,000 per acre to $500 per acre, amounting to a taxable land value loss of approximately $12 million. That in turn would affect essential county services such as fire protection, emergency vehicles, the police force, and road maintenance. Over the past 15 years, project landowners have invested over $2.6 million in irrigation efficiency improvements, including pivots, pipelines, and gated pipe, all based on the assumption of having continuing access to affordable irrigation water. This includes over $450,000 of U.S. Department of Agriculture Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding.
We’re hoping and praying that we can get this problem fixed as soon as possible. We’re not asking for anything new. The fix would keep the status quo and would cap PUP usage at the current level, never to increase. The loss of PUP eligibility would have adverse effects on the region and its economy. Because of this, the legislation has support from 20 diverse groups, including the Montana Department of Natural Resources, the Richland County commissioners, the Montana Water Users Association, the Montana Farm Bureau, Montana Dakota Utilities, and the Yellowstone Rural Electric Cooperative.