After the recent catastrophic failure of one of the Milk River Project’s drop structures, the Bureau of Reclamation worked intensively with the Milk River Joint Board of Control (MRJBOC), the State of Montana, the Blackfeet Tribe, and other stakeholders to plan for a permanent repair to the structure. In this interview, Steve Davies, the manager of Reclamation’s Montana area office, tells Irrigation Leader about the close collaboration that went into a successful, timely repair and shares the wisdom he has gained over 35 years at Reclamation.

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Irrigation Leader: Would you give an overview of Reclamation’s role in the reconstruction of drops 2 and 5?

Steve Davies: As an agency that has aging infrastructure across the West, we’re always ready to deal with the incidents that occur. That said, the failure of drop 5 was pretty unusual in its magnitude, importance, and effects. The Milk River Project serves water to eight irrigation districts, tribal entities, municipalities, and about 150 individual farm contract pumpers, serving over 120,000 acres and 14,000 people. Most of that water flows through this structure. 

The timing of this failure was actually lucky. If drop 5 was going to fail, this was the opportune time for it to happen. Two storage reservoirs that are located downstream of drop 5, Fresno and Nelson, were full. It was early in the irrigation season, so there was enough time—although just barely—to do the work before winter set in. We were also lucky that the failure occurred when the canal wasn’t operating at full capacity. We had actually shut the canal off the day before the failure for a repair about 15 miles upstream of drop 5, so it had less than half the flow it normally does. 

All the facilities on the St. Mary Unit of the Milk River Project are reserved-works facilities, which means that Reclamation forces do all the operation and maintenance (O&M) work on them. However, in order to get this project going as quickly as possible so that we didn’t lose the entire season, we had to bring on partners, including water users, the State of Montana, a contractor, engineering forces, and tribal work forces. 

The drop 5 failure was essentially a statewide emergency, because the Milk River Project serves a huge area and large population across northern Montana. We immediately met with the MRJBOC, which represents eight irrigation districts, to discuss options for repairs. We have a contractual arrangement with the MRJBOC that allows it, with Reclamation approval, to take the lead role in certain O&M projects on the Milk River Project. The MRJBOC has the capability to take on large O&M projects. It pays the majority of O&M costs on the Milk River Project, and when it takes on O&M projects, it can control costs and timelines perhaps a little better than Reclamation can. The MRJBOC did take the lead in this case. It was in a position to move faster than Reclamation could. 

One of the reasons for its ability to move quickly was that the MRJBOC had already designed a replacement for drop 2, a similar structure about 2 miles upstream of drop 5. Drop 2 was planned to be replaced in 2020, with the MRJBOC taking the lead role in accordance with the contract arrangement I described. In the meantime, drop 5 failed. Reclamation worked with the MRJBOC to expand its existing plans to include drop 5 as well. Working collaboratively with the MRJBOC and the State of Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC), with the latter as a key funding partner, we developed a plan to work on drops 2 and 5 simultaneously with the MRJBOC as the lead entity. The MRJBOC immediately brought on board a large contractor, Sletten Construction, and its engineering consultant, HDR Engineering Inc., to start onsite work. Reclamation’s role became more focused on financial and technical review, technical support, and problem solving, while the MRJBOC directly led all onsite work. 

Irrigation Leader: Was this project distinctive in terms of the number of partners you were working with and the fact that you transferred some of your responsibilities to the MRJBOC?

Steve Davies: It is unlike other projects Reclamation has done in Montana, especially in terms of scale and complexity. Every situation and problem we encountered was put on the table for all to jointly solve together. It was no small feat for the MRJBOC to dive in and lead this huge project, because it has its own projects on its distribution systems as well. The leadership demonstrated by Jennifer Patrick, the manager of the MRJBOC, in this effort was phenomenal.

Irrigation Leader: What was Reclamation’s role in funding this project?

Steve Davies: The normal funding process for projects on St. Mary Canal facilities is that Reclamation appropriates 100 percent of the money for all operations, maintenance, and replacements. Normally, Reclamation would appropriate all the money and then bill water users for their proportionate share, which is about 74 percent. In the case of replacing drops 2 and 5, this would normally have involved Reclamation fronting the full $8 million estimated project cost up front and then billing water users.

However, in the situation of a major structure failure like this, entities can use Public Law 111‑11 to apply for extraordinary maintenance funding assistance—essentially advance funding that can be repaid over time. The MRJBOC requested this assistance. Because of the effect the failure had on project water users, who faced huge potential crop losses and the loss of municipal water supplies, Reclamation Commissioner Burman determined that the project qualified for emergency extraordinary maintenance funding. This provided a 35 percent reduction in costs for the water users. In addition to the assistance that P.L. 111‑11 provided, the State of Montana had previously passed legislation authorizing bonding authority for projects on the Milk River Project. Funding from the sale of state bonds was made available to help offset the funds that Reclamation would otherwise have had to come up with and then bill water users for. To simplify a complicated story, you could say that a combination of Reclamation funding, state funding, and a special assessment of the water users funded the project.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the importance of collaboration in bringing this project to fruition?

Steve Davies: There were so many entities involved in making this successful—about 46 federal, state, tribal, and local entities, including agencies, congressional and state representatives, contractors, subcontractors, districts, and communities. That included 35 entities in the United States and 11 in Canada, as all the concrete and rockfill materials came across the border. Hundreds of people from these 46 entities were directly involved the project, all at a time when a pandemic was going on and the U.S.-Canada border was closed to nonessential travel. It is just unbelievable what we all accomplished together to get water running again in just 21 weeks. We’re so proud that Reclamation was a part of that.

Irrigation Leader: What have you learned and what have you seen change over your time at Reclamation?

Steve Davies: I am retiring in January after 35 incredible years with Reclamation. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many talented people over these years, many of whom helped to teach me the Reclamation way of working together to get things done. Reclamation is a can-do agency. We are proud of what we do. We have incredible capabilities, both technical and nontechnical, and are good at rising to the occasion.

Working for Reclamation is one of the coolest jobs anybody can have. I never tire of walking into our power plants; I’m always in awe. It is incredible to be a part of keeping these massive structures running, operating, and providing water and power to the economy of the United States. The opportunity to work with so many people in different states has played an important role in shaping me. What has been the most rewarding is working directly with the staff who in turn are working most closely with our stakeholders, who are the reason we exist.

I work every day with a variety of stakeholders who rely on our structures for their livelihoods. Our challenges include finding and securing funding, addressing aging infrastructure and failures, and making unique collaborations succeed. We’ve always been able to address technical issues, but where we’re changing is in our need to get more creative and to work more collaboratively with stakeholders and project beneficiaries to fund projects and do our day-to-day business. We need to adapt to change, which is hard. We need to remain open minded and look at how we can directly respond to our partners and work together with them on their challenges. 

Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for young people who are considering a career at Reclamation?

Steve Davies: In my position, I get to see many people joining our agency. We have a lot of new faces coming into our office. They’re smart, talented, and ambitious, and they want to jump in and learn and embrace the challenges that we face. I say to them, take time to recognize the business aspects of Reclamation. We’re not just an agency that designs something on paper and then builds it. What we do affects many people and their livelihoods. It’s important for our young workforce to experience and understand the business aspects of our projects and do our part to make these successful. 

Steve Davies is the manager for Reclamation’s Montana area office. He can be contacted at or (406) 247‑7298.