At approximately 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, a concrete drop structure failed on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project St. Mary Canal, northwest of the town of Cut Bank. The structure was located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When the damage was reported, the canal was flowing approximately 200 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS), which is about one-third of the canal’s total capacity of approximately 600 CFS. No injuries were reported, and canal flows have been shut off.
This concrete drop structure is the last of five drop structures that use gravity and siphons to convey water through the 29-mile long St. Mary Canal to the North Fork of the Milk River. Water is diverted into the canal from the St. Mary River, near Glacier National Park.
The Bureau of Reclamation, along with stakeholders of the Milk River Project, are assessing the situation to determine the impacts to the water users and options for restoring canal operation. Currently, Fresno Dam and Nelson Reservoir are both at full storage levels and will be used to provide continued irrigation deliveries. Once a plan and schedule for the repair of the canal are developed, water deliveries will be assessed and communicated.
Thursday, May 21, State Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie and State Rep. Llew Jones met with Glacier County officials, as well as local agriculture producers Beau and Suzy Michael, to discuss what is being done to address the issue. John Tubbs, Director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, also participated in the discussion via conference call.
The majority of construction of the Milk River Project was completed between 1906 and 1940. The canal was constructed between 1907 and 1915 and is the primary water source for eight irrigation districts tribes, contract pumpers, and several municipalities downstream of Havre serving approximately 110,000 acres of land.
Following the failure of Drop 5 of the St. Mary Canal and Conveyance Works system on Sunday, Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) urged President Trump to take action to ensure it is repaired as quickly as possible.
“I encourage you to take swift action to engage with the Milk River Joint Control Board to fix Drop 5 as quickly as possible,” Congressman Greg Gianforte wrote in his letter to the President. “This project is over 100 years old and in dire need of a full upgrade. Fixing this drop structure will allow the project to continue moving water for the upcoming irrigation season. Without this repair, Montanans across the Hi-Line will soon turn on their faucets and no water will come out.”
Gianforte emphasized the importance of a functioning water system. The project provides water for the Blackfeet Nation, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and many towns along the Hi-Line.