Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

The Montana Congressional Delegation’s Work in Support of Legislation to Rescue Sidney and Kinsey Irrigators

On October 30, 2020, President Trump signed Public Law 116-191, which allowed two small Montana irrigation water entities, the Kinsey Irrigation Company (KIC) of Custer County and the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District (SWUID) of Richland County, to continue using affordable project use power generated by the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. This legislation, without which the KIC and the SWUID would likely have had to cease operations, did not come from nowhere. It was pushed through Congress by the determined efforts of Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester and then-Congressman Greg Gianforte (now the governor of Montana). In this interview, Senators Daines and Tester and Governor Gianforte tell Irrigation Leader about their efforts on behalf of Montana irrigators. 

Senator Steve Daines

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your work on the Sidney and Kinsey bill that recently became law. 

Senator Daines: I worked extensively and in close coordination and partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation and with the SWUID and the KIC to craft this critical legislation. We knew from the beginning that getting movement through Congress would be difficult, so I reached across state and party lines to the Oregon delegation to combine our legislation with a similarly pressing technical bill dealing with water issues in Oregon, which helped in the final push to get this critical bill signed into law. 

Irrigation Leader: What effects will the new law have? 

Senator Daines: This law saved family farms and ag operations in the Sidney and Kinsey areas. Irrigators can continue to use the Pick-Sloan program and won’t have to worry about astronomical rate increases in the future. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the most effective ways for irrigated farmers to keep in touch with their elected officials and to communicate their priorities to them? 

Senator Daines: I am here to serve Montanans. I encourage anyone who needs help to reach out to any of my offices about any issue. We will do everything possible to help Montanans in need. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for Congress when it comes to securing the future of Montana’s irrigated agriculture? 

Senator Daines: Water is a fundamental resource that is critical for agriculture, public health, wildlife, and many other things. There are many needs related to outdated water infrastructure in Montana. I will keep fighting to ensure that Montanans have the resources they need to keep and maintain access to reliable, clean water. 

Governor Greg Gianforte 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your work on the Sidney and Kinsey bill that recently became law. 

Governor Gianforte: It was an honor to get this bill to President Trump’s desk and signed into law to support more than 130 family farms in eastern Montana. During my time in the House of Representatives, our team worked side by side with the affected irrigators to understand the situation and spent long hours coordinating with Reclamation. We originally hoped that this could be fixed administratively, but once we knew a legislative fix was needed, we went to bat for our farmers and ranchers to get this bill across the finish line in the House. Senator Daines did the same in the Senate. We were incredibly proud to get this piece of legislation signed for Montanans. 

Irrigation Leader: What effects will the new law have? 

Governor Gianforte: The new law requires Reclamation to enter into a new contract with the irrigators that will allow them continued access to project use power, keeping costs down and protecting Montana ag jobs. 

Irrigation Leader: What has your role been in securing federal investment in Montana agriculture more broadly? 

Governor Gianforte: Agriculture is the number 1 driver of Montana’s economy, which is why I’ve always supported efforts to improve Montana’s infrastructure. Our farmers and ranchers work hard to feed the world, and I was glad to bring their voices to Congress, to advocate for Farm Bill programs and rural development programs to improve infrastructure and promote value-added ag, and to support farmers when disaster struck. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the most effective ways for irrigated farmers to keep in touch with their elected officials and to communicate their priorities to them? 

Governor Gianforte: I strongly encourage irrigated farmers and all Montana producers to continue to keep in touch with their elected officials. Please bring your concerns to us on a regular basis so that we can work together on solutions. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for Congress when it comes to securing the future of Montana’s irrigated agriculture? 

Governor Gianforte: Congress still needs to do more work on the St. Mary Project, and to make that viable, we need to fix the cost share. Congress is getting close to passing legislation to do that, but discussions are ongoing. I know that Congressman Matt Rosendale will be a strong voice for Montana ag in Congress, and I look forward to continuing my work with Montana’s irrigated farmers as governor. 

Senator Jon Tester 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your work on the Sidney and Kinsey bill that recently became law. 

Senator Tester: The Sidney and Kinsey bill was a piece of common-sense, ground-up legislation that fixed a clear oversight at the federal level. You frequently see unrelated bills get bundled together to make it through the Senate, and that’s ultimately what happened with this one—our bill was added on to an unrelated technical correction bill by Senator Merkley, and we were able to get across the finish line together. As always, the more you can build a coalition, the bigger your window for passing legislation is. 

Irrigation Leader: What effects will the new law have? 

Senator Tester: This law will ensure that folks getting water through the KIC and the SWUID will continue to be able to irrigate without breaking the bank. If this bill hadn’t passed, power rates for irrigation would have spiked astronomically due to a bookkeeping error that went unnoticed for decades. 

Irrigation Leader: What has your role been in securing federal investment in Montana agriculture more broadly? 

Senator Tester: As a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee, I fight every year to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture the full funding it needs to invest in rural America. Whether it’s updating a wastewater system in Hardin, researching wheat scab at Montana State University, or increasing broadband access out in Beaverhead County, these federal dollars go far in our state. I’ll keep fighting to make investments in production agriculture in Montana while ensuring taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the most effective ways for irrigated farmers to keep in touch with their elected officials and to communicate their priorities to them? 

Senator Tester: Write, call, or e-mail. Seriously. Every decision elected officials make involves the careful consideration of what their constituents are saying. When you get in touch, we listen, and quite frankly, some of the best work I’ve done only happened because someone called or wrote in about a problem they were facing or a new idea they wanted to share. So don’t be shy. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for Congress when it comes to securing the future of Montana’s irrigated agriculture? 

Senator Tester: We absolutely need to move legislation to rehabilitate the Milk River Project—that’s got to be a priority. We also need to be looking to resolve outstanding water rights settlements, including with the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Moving legislation on these makes good on our commitments to tribes, leads to big federal investments in water infrastructure, and gives irrigators peace of mind by avoiding water rights fights in court. 

Steve Daines is a United States senator from Montana. For more information about Senator Daines, visit daines.senate.gov. 

Greg Gianforte represented Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2017 to 2021 and now serves as governor of Montana. For more about Governor Gianforte, visit montanacomeback.com. 

Jon Tester is a United States senator from Montana. For more information about Senator Tester, visit tester.senate.gov.