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Irrigators along Hi-Line likely to close season early due to St. Mary breach

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Irrigators along Hi-Line likely to close season early due to St. Mary breach

Jun 18, 2024 | 8:16 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Irrigators along Hi-Line likely to close season early due to St. Mary breach
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The St. Mary entrance to Glacier National Park, which borders the Blackfeet Nation, remained closed during the summer of 2020 as Blackfeet officials implemented strict measures in an effort to keep covid-19 off the reservation. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)

The Milk River Project, which is part of a system that delivers drinking water to 18,000 people and more than 700 farms, will shut down early this year following the breach of 110-year-old pipes near Baab.

Christopher Gomer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday the irrigators along the Hi-Line will have about 30 days of water left from Frenso and Nelson reservoir storage but after that will have an early shutdown this year.

“Depending on where we align with the fix, will point us in the direction of what future impacts will be,” Gomer said.

On Monday both of the St. Mary river siphon barrels failed, both 90-inch riveted steel barrels built between 1912 and 1926, with massive amounts of water gushing out. The Blackfeet Tribe closed Camp Nine Road to near the Hooks Hideaway Motel in Babb, with exceptions for residents, and emergency personnel and prohibiting water recreation until June 24, according to the Blackfeet Tribe’s Facebook page.

Gomer told the Daily Montanan engineers are still assessing the damage and have yet to determine whether there can be a short-term fix, like repairing the less damaged barrel, or completely replacing both. He said this assessment could take anywhere from days to weeks. He said how quickly they can get materials is the biggest unknown right now.

“We will have a large engineering team on site next Tuesday and hopefully, within a couple of days to a week after that, we’ll have some idea of which direction we’re headed,” he said.

The bureau said in a press release Monday the breach “caused local flooding and erosion, with some areas resulting in washout areas estimated to be 30 to 50 feet deep.” The department said while water was diverted back to the St. Mary River, flows are expected to continue for as long as 24 to 36 hours while the canal drains.

Since 1915 the St. Mary Canal has diverted water from the St. Mary River to the North Fork of the Milk River, the release said, and sends water to 120,000 acres of irrigated land and 14,000 municipal users.

Top political leaders in Montana, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Matt Rosendale and Rep. Ryan Zinke all posted on social media to say they are keeping tabs on the situation.