The Kinsey Irrigation Company, located in Custer County, Montana, provides water to farming across 6,640 acres of land, supporting 80 families. The company was recently informed that its existing power contract with the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program will not be eligible for renewal when it expires. This casts the future of the company in question, as alternate power sources would cost 6½–20 times as much as its current supply. In this interview, Doug Martin, the project coordinator for the Kinsey Irrigation Company’s legislative efforts on the Pick-Sloan issue, lays out for us the company’s current situation and how it could be resolved.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Doug Martin: I was raised in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and my family moved to Custer County, Montana, in 1996. My cousin had a family farm, and all I ever wanted to do was have one of my own, but it didn’t work out with the state of the dairy industry in the early 1980s. I ended up going into general contracting, and I had been a carpenter for about 35 years before I had the opportunity to buy a farm in Kinsey, Montana, in 2006. That is how I got involved with the Kinsey Irrigation Company. I had never been around irrigation prior to that.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the Kinsey Irrigation Company.
Doug Martin: The irrigation system has been around for well over 100 years. The water right goes back to 1896. Two projects were started and then failed before the current one was instituted in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal–era federal agency. It built 80 units out here—basically homes with land to which people could move to get started farming, later paying back the Farm Service Agency at a low rate. In 1946, the farmers served by the irrigation system bought the Kinsey Irrigation Project from the federal government; it has been a private company ever since. In 1946, the Kinsey Irrigation Company also signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to receive power from the Pick- Sloan Missouri Basin Program. We have done that ever since. Kinsey’s service area is currently 6,640 acres. About 80 families make a living off those acres.
Irrigation Leader: Please describe the current situation with your Pick-Sloan power contract.
Doug Martin: In 2014, we received a letter questioning our Pick-Sloan status, and in 2017, we received another letter advising us that when our current contract expired at the end of 2020, it would not be renewed. The reason, according to the solicitor for Reclamation, was that we were not a federally owned project and didn’t have specific legislation allowing Kinsey to contract with Reclamation and were therefore ineligible.
Irrigation Leader: What has your response been?
Doug Martin: First, we attempted to work directly with Reclamation to remedy the situation. It informed us that unfortunately, the statute was clear and its hands were tied. Then we contacted our congressional delegation and were eventually able to get legislation introduced. It is now going through Congress. Currently, our bills in the Senate and in the House of Representatives have each been passed as amendments to other bills, which are in turn awaiting further consideration. I received a personal call from Congressman Greg Gianforte to update me on this progress, which was very much appreciated.
Irrigation Leader: What would the legislation do for you?
Doug Martin: The legislation applies specifically to our situation. The Kinsey Irrigation Company and the Sidney Water Users Irrigation District, with which we are in partnership, would be able to continue to contract with Reclamation to provide pumping power. We’re the only two irrigation systems that have been singled out to be removed from their Pick-Sloan contracts. This legislation would allow us to continue to purchase power from Reclamation at the Pick- Sloan rate and at our current contract rate of delivery. In other words, we would not be able to increase our electricity usage above its current level. If our system expands, we will have to find another source of electricity to cover the expansion.
Irrigation Leader: What is the difference in cost between the contract you have now and what you would pay if the contract expired?
Doug Martin: We would pay about 6½ times more if were able to get a Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) contract, although Kinsey is currently not eligible for that either, because we have no federal nexus with WAPA. Kinsey would need to change from a nonprofit corporation to an irrigation district to contract with WAPA.
Irrigation Leader: If you are unable to get a Reclamation contract or a WAPA contract, where would you get your electricity?
Doug Martin: We would buy retail electricity from our local provider, Montana Dakota Utilities. In that case, the rate would be about 20 times what it currently is.
Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress about your legislation and your situation?
Doug Martin: Current circumstances are dire. It is important that we be eligible to receive Pick-Sloan power. The agriculture industry as a whole is suffering. This would be another nail in our coffin. It would not cost the federal government any additional money to provide us with a solution. It has been doing this for 75 years. This is not a new program for it. The money it would cost is inconsequential in the context of the federal budget, and it is highly important for the families affected.