Third-generation Montanan Jon Tester has represented Montana in the United States Senate since 2006. His prior experience in agriculture and local and state government means that he has an intimate knowledge of the importance of irrigated agriculture for Montana’s economy. In this interview, Senator Tester tells Irrigation Leader about his legislative work on behalf of Montana irrigators.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell our readers about your background and connection to Montana.
Jon Tester: I have represented Montana in the United States Senate since 2006. I was born and raised in north-central Montana, where my wife, Sharla, and I still farm the same land near Big Sandy that was homesteaded by my grandparents in 1912. Before coming to the Senate, I was a music teacher in my community, which inspired me to serve on the local school board. In 1998, I was elected to the Montana Senate and served there—including as its president—until my election to the United States Senate.
Irrigation Leader: Why is irrigation important to Montana and to the country?
Jon Tester: Montana’s economy is driven mostly by agriculture, and because we have such a large state, irrigation is one of the essential services we rely on. To keep family farms like mine alive and well, it’s critical that we make substantial investments in water systems. This also ensures that everyone—not just farmers and ranchers—has access to clean water, even in the most remote parts of the state. Many rural communities across the country struggle to get the federal help they need to improve or replace outdated water systems. That’s why I’ve been working tirelessly to pass legislation that helps frontier communities get the resources they need to ensure they have access to clean water.
Irrigation Leader: Would you explain the significance of S. 1305, the St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act?
Jon Tester: One of the oldest Bureau of Reclamation projects in the nation, the Milk River Project is the lifeline of Montana’s Hi-Line region. Irrigating more than 148,000 acres and providing access to water to more than 18,000 folks, including two tribal communities, this system is the backbone of many rural and frontier areas in Montana. However, the project is more than a century old and is in desperate need of repair. The recent failure of drop 5 shows that we can’t afford to drag our feet any longer on rehabilitating and replacing large sections of this system. That’s why I’m working to find a path forward for my St. Mary’s Reinvestment Act, which will reduce the current 74 percent nonfederal cost share that is overburdening water users who are seeking to fund replacement work on the project, including the St. Mary Diversion Dam. My bill will ensure that water keeps flowing for folks on the Hi-Line without forcing irrigators to break the bank, harming fish health, or infringing on our trust and treaty responsibilities to Montana tribes. For the better part of 15 years, I’ve been fighting to bring in more federal funding for the Milk River Project through my roles in both the United States and Montana Senates, and I will continue this fight until this bill makes it across the finish line.
Irrigation Leader: How will S. 1882 benefit the communities of Sidney and Kinsey in eastern Montana?
Jon Tester: Like most places in the Treasure State, the Sidney and Kinsey communities rely on a strong agricultural economy to survive, and you can’t support that economy without clean water. S. 1882 will ensure that irrigators can’t be priced out of getting water to their fields while allowing the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District and the Kinsey Irrigation Company to continue using the same project use power they’ve been relying on for decades, bringing certainty to the family farms, ranches, and frontier communities that need them.
Irrigation Leader: What is your message to irrigators and rural communities throughout Montana?
Jon Tester: Agriculture is the powerhouse behind our economy and is deeply rooted in our way of life. As a third-generation Montana farmer, I know how critical it is that the voices of irrigators are heard loud and clear in Washington, DC, so that producers across the state can continue doing what they do best: growing the best crops and livestock on earth. Communities across Montana rely on irrigation to keep their economies strong, and they shouldn’t be breaking the bank to make improvements that should have been taken care of years ago. As folks work to improve their local water systems, I will continue fighting to fund rural water projects, improve small drinking and wastewater systems, and provide technical assistance to ensure the longevity of these systems.