This July, I was fortunate to have participated in a tour of the St. Mary Diversion sponsored by the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group and the Montana Water Resources Association. It was a great experience. Montanans are enthusiastic, can-do Americans, and the scenery is wide open and beautiful. The glacial water in the project canals has a unique, almost turquoise color that is also beautiful to see. The St. Mary Diversion was one of the first U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects, with construction beginning in 1907, and most of the original infrastructure is still in place. Most noteworthy are the hand-riveted, 80-inch steel siphons that are still delivering water. While the siphons have been repaired in various places, the original engineering has stood the test of time. The gravity-flow system has successfully delivered water for alfalfa, wheat, other forage crops, and livestock production for over 100 years. It is clear, however, that many of the project’s components are crumbling and in need of replacement.

What would those original builders of the St. Mary Diversion think if they could see the project today? They engineered it and built it to last, so they would likely not be surprised that it is still operating. They may be surprised, however, at the project’s state of repair, and they may also be surprised to see that the project has not continued to develop. Those who promoted and built the St. Mary Diversion over 100 years ago understood that irrigation creates an economic engine for local and state economies. Today, Montana’s Canadian neighbors to the north in Alberta are growing 40 different crops that supply a variety of processors and contribute C$3.5 billion to the province’s economy. What would the builders of the St. Mary Diversion think about that?

Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at