Shared from the 6/28/2020 The Denver Post eEdition By Jim Robbins © The New York Times Co.
CUT BANK, MONT.» A century ago, one of the first of the ambitious federal water projects that helped build the West was constructed to carry water from the mountains of Glacier National Park hundreds of miles east, irrigating an area twice the size of Maryland.
The well-traveled water allows alfalfa, wheat and cattle farms to flourish in what would otherwise be an arid landscape of prairie grass and sagebrush.
Last month, however, a crumbling concrete portion of the antiquated ditch system known as the St. Mary Canal collapsed, cutting off the flow of mountain water to farms and towns in a portion of Canada and much of eastern Montana. As the heat of summer looms, water users are worried.
“I want water running,” said Jennifer Patrick, program manager of the Milk River Joint Board of Control. She was standing at the base of a 58-foot-tall concrete ramp called Drop 5, now a tangle of broken concrete and rebar. “It’s the lifeline for farms and towns,” she said. “There is no backup.”
State officials have said they may be able to get a new concrete ramp up and running by fall to replace the broken ramp. But they warned that the entire length of the 29-mile canal — built, they often point out, in the same era as the Titanic — is at the end of its life and needs as much as $200 million for an overhaul. “If not now, when?” Patrick asked. “We are out of water.”
It is a huge request, and so far has fallen on deaf ears. Federal, state and local officials have been meeting for 20 years to help plan a solution before the region dries up and reverts to sagebrush.
A sticking point is that a contract was signed in 1922 with the federal government in which the irrigators accepted all costs for operation, maintenance and replacement. “That’s the catch,” said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “But the federal government knows the irrigators cannot pay for it.”
The origin of the giant project dates back to a mountain goat-hunting trip by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1880s. His hunting guide, John Willis, later became a farmer and head of the Milk River irrigation district. In that capacity, Willis traveled to Washington and had lunch with his former client and friend, and apparently lobbied him for the project.
Soon after that meeting, the St. Mary Canal became one of the country’s first five federal water projects under the newly formed Reclamation Service, now called the Bureau of Reclamation. Approved in 1903, it was begun in 1906 and finished in 1922.
Because the canal diverted substantial amounts of water that would have flowed into Canada, the project created cross-border tensions. In response, the Canadians began work on what was called the Spite Ditch, which would have taken the portion of the Milk River that has to flow first through the Canadian province of Alberta and diverted it to Canada. Before that could happen, negotiations ended the standoff and the Milk River Project became one of two projects contained in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which governs water shared by the two countries.
The canal runs through wild, rolling hills east of Glacier National Park that are home to grizzly bears and wolves and very few people. The park is home to Triple Divide Peak, the only mountain in the United States that drains its snowmelt into three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific and — via the St. Mary — the Arctic. After the river tumbles out of Glacier and through a reservoir, part of its flow is siphoned off into the St. Mary Canal in Montana, just outside the park, through 90-inch iron pipes. The canal travels about 29 miles to the north, snaking across the treeless hills, until it reaches the North Fork of the Milk River.
Much of the length of the canal is unlined ditch, dug by hand, steam-powered machinery and horse-drawn Fresno Scrapers — the large, flat buckets that dug up dirt as they were pulled. The cast-iron pipes in some sections were fastened together with hot rivets and expertly laid on the ups and downs of the rolling prairie based on a sophisticated understanding of water physics, enabling the water to overcome barriers and even flow upslope in places without pumps.
The canal travels through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation until it reaches a series of concrete troughs that take advantage of a more precipitous drop in altitude. As it leaves Drop 5, it plunges into the North Fork of the Milk River. It was a marvel in its day.
The Milk River is a much smaller prairie stream than the St. Mary, which, without the pulse of glacier-fed water that provides up to 90% of its flow, often dries up in June. It was named the Milk River by the explorer Meriwether Lewis who described it as the “colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonful of milk,” the result of suspended sediment.
The most immediate threat from the collapse of Drop 5 and the cutoff of water is to the communities just over the U.S.-Canadian border in southern Alberta, which are entirely dependent on the flow for both domestic and agricultural use. There is no storage to help prepare for the dry months ahead. “People are waiting to hear if they will have water this summer,” said Peggy Losey, the mayor of Milk River, a town of 862 on the prairie of southern Alberta. “It’s serious — water is life.”
After a 150-mile detour through Canada, the Milk River re-enters the United States northeast of Havre, Mont., the largest city in the region with some 10,000 people, and then flows into Fresno Reservoir. A dam there releases the water into the Milk, and from there it runs through a series of small towns across a stretch of the state called the High Line. The Milk River provides the sole source of water to the city of Havre, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and other small towns, as well as to several hundred irrigators.
The region south of where the Milk River re-enters the United States may have a summer’s worth of storage in the Fresno Reservoir, which is full, to grow one crop of hay and satisfy municipal demands, depending on how much rain falls this spring and summer.
This remote region is where the Northern Pacific Railroad brought European immigrants and Americans from the East, by the thousands, to claim 160 acres of prairie each and start farms. The settlers built cabins and sod homes and tilled the hard prairie but soon discovered that the climate was too harsh to support small family farms, and many homesteaders abandoned their plots. Officials realized that irrigation was needed to make the landscape profitable.
That was the genesis of the Milk River Project, which now irrigates 150,000 acres across northern Montana and another 7,500 acres in Canada. Now the question is how to pay for its upkeep in a modern era when public resources, especially during the present economic downturn, are gravely challenged. “The costs are certainly prohibitive for irrigators to pay,” said Steve Davies, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Billings, Montana. Without funding from Congress, which he said must deal with a long list of aging infrastructure projects across the country, “it’s a real dilemma.”
If the funding does not come through, Davies said, it could be catastrophic. Many here are warning that farmers in the region could suffer the same fate as their homesteading predecessors.