OP-ED: Tester Delivers for Milk River


February 2, 2022

At their meeting on Friday, January 21, members of the St. Mary/Milk River Working Group expressed great appreciation for Senator Jon Tester’s success in securing $100 million in the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill, which he helped negotiate, to jump-start the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the St. Mary/Milk River conveyance system, primarily the St. Mary Diversion Dam. Ever since the St. Mary/Milk River Working Group was first convened in 2001 by Lieutenant Governor Karl Ohs, little progress had been made to secure funding for the necessary repairs to the system due to the partisan gridlock that has so frequently snarled up progress in our nation’s capital. Yet last year, Senator Tester, joined by four fellow Democrats and five Republicans negotiated the package finally approved by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by President Biden. At the Friday meeting, Senator Tester’s staff reported on the Senator’s efforts to get the Bureau of Reclamation to overcome typical bureaucratic inertia and get this necessary reconstruction project underway in a timely manner.

While he voted for the project (in committee) before he voted against the package (on the floor), Senator Daines has explained his vote against the Infrastructure Bill was due to concerns about the inflationary impact of the package. However, as I found out as a member of the Montana Transportation Commission, inflation in the heavy construction industry was well underway, pre-Covid, largely due to intemperate and unfortunate trade-wars launched by the previous administration against our trading partners throughout the Pacific Rim. The most immediate concern should be the deflation that would result throughout the Milk River Valley if the St. Mary Diversion Dam should fail before the new structure is in place. Without St. Mary water, the value of farm land dependent on that water for irrigation would collapse. Without St. Mary water for domestic and commercial consumers in the valley (those of us who live in Havre, Harlem, Chinook and Fort Belknap and others), the value of homes and businesses would plummet as well. Due to the shortness of the construction season at the diversion dam location, it is projected to take three summers to build the replacement diversion structure. That is why Tester’s achievement is so timely. It comes before a catastrophic failure of the diversion dam, not afterwards.

Though there is no guarantee that there won’t be a catastrophic failure of the existing dam during this period when the new facility is being constructed, we should recognize that the leadership of the irrigation districts along the river, though their Joint Board of Control, have succeeded in keeping the system working well beyond its anticipated useful life despite enormous cost and logistical challenges. Hopefully, their good work will hold up for a few more years. We know the system will not survive another 20 years of partisan gridlock and dilly-dallying.

According to the minutes of the Working Group March 2020 meeting, Congressman Rosendale expressed doubt that Senator Tester would be able to secure funding for the project since he (Rosendale) had not been able to bring up the matter in a committee on which he serves. Perhaps that explains his no vote on the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill.

In any case, there is a lot more work to be done in order to fully rehabilitate the Milk River project in a manner affordable and achievable for water users along the river, but we must thank Senator Tester for this great start and we can expect he will continue the effort to secure funding for all that remains to be done.

Greg Jergeson served communities along the Milk River during his 24 years in the Montana Senate, and 8 years on the Montana Public Service Commission.


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