A concrete structure that helps deliver water to farmers along the Big Horn Canal was in danger of failure because of water-caused erosion stretching over decades.

But workers from the Crow Tribal Water Resource Department completed repairs to the concrete structure, known as a high check, before the 2013 irrigation system began.

A new concrete foundation, a layer of rubberized fabric and a bed of stone riprap installed inside the canal have blocked water from further undercutting the structure, which backs up water and slows the flow so that farmers can draw from the canal and irrigate their fields.

Without the repairs, the check was in danger of toppling over, leaving farmers high and dry, said Titus Takes Gun, director of the Crow Tribal Water Resource Department.

On a recent June morning, Takes Gun joined officials from several agencies near St. Xavier for an inspection of the repaired canal and a nearby access road. The renovation is one of the preliminary projects being done to rehabilitate the historic irrigation system that serves the 2.3-million-acre Crow Reservation.

The extensive collection of canals, diversions and drains that was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been a lifeline to generations of farmers. The system consists of 11 diversion dam, one storage dam, 122 miles of main canals, 43 miles of drains, 257 miles of additional canals and 3,800 structures.

But the years have taken their toll on this essential infrastructure.

“It’s an old system, and it’s never been rehabilitated since it was first built. It has needed work for quite a long time,” Takes Gun said.

The recent renovation appeared to be functioning well during the June visit. But the check, and a similar downstream structure known as a drop, will eventually be replaced by a modern control structure. Preliminary plans call for constructing a pair of 72-inch pipes, with energy-absorbing baffles installed in the bottom, Takes Gun said.

Because the irrigation system operates during the summer, most of the construction work has to be done between fall and spring, when the irrigation water is turned off.

Tribal officials also are looking into the feasibility of harvesting renewable energy from the irrigation system with a hydro-powered electrical generator. Takes Gun plans to visit a low-head hydroelectric power system in Madras, Ore., which has a hydro-power system that’s very similar to what’s being considered for the Big Horn Canal, he said.

According to research from Colorado State University, water flowing in an irrigation canal is capable of generating between 100 kilowatts and two megawatts of power. Two megawatts is enough electricity to supply power to about 850 typical homes.

In March, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the Crow Tribe had received a $665,000 grant for an eight-megawatt hydroelectric power project at the Afterbay below Bighorn Lake.

The tribe will use the money to complete all the technical, environmental, engineering and economic analyses required for an 8- to 12-megawatt hydroelectric project. The tribe hopes to have the $44.5 million dam operating by 2018.

The extensive rehabilitation work scheduled to take place between now and 2030 might not have happened without approval of the $460 million Claims Settlement Act. The law, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, guarantees the tribe’s water rights and includes about $460 million for specific water projects.

The Crow Irrigation Project will receive nearly $132 million in improvements as part of the settlement. The act also allocates $246.4 million for the design and construction of the MR&I water system to provide domestic and industrial water for communities around the reservation.

The milestone water agreement put to rest more than 30 years of litigation concerning the tribe’s water rights.

Takes Gun lived in Lodge Grass until he was 11 years old when his family moved to Billings. He graduated from Billings Senior High.

He graduated from Montana State University with a degree in civil engineering and joined the Crow Tribal Water Resources Department in 2012. He was promoted to director in 2013.

“When this job came along I thought it was a perfect challenge,” Takes Gun said. “I’ve always tried to challenge myself, and for the tribe to trust me with this type of responsibility, I’m willing to take it on.”

The extensive work on the tribe’s irrigation system not only means improved service to irrigators. It also provides job opportunities so tribal members. The department currently has around 27 employees, but that number is expected to increase to around 60 permanent employees and up to 30 seasonal employees over the next few years as work progresses.

Bartlett & West, an engineering firm based in Topeka, Kan., opened a Billings office about one year ago and has been doing much of the design work for the Crow project.

Takes Gun said Bartlett & West has been responsive and thorough in its dealings with the district.

Bruce Hattig, an engineer and Billings location manager for Bartlett & West, said the Crow water project represents a significant portion of the work being done in the Billings office. “It’s a good, reliable opportunity for us,” he said.

With offices Bartlett & West has 14 offices in nine states. In addition to Billings, the company has upper-Midwest offices in Bismarck, N.D., Williston, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D. The Billings office serves local and regional municipalities, tribal governments, water districts, land developers, private industry and other clients.

Hattig said Bartlett & West has been active working in the area surrounding the Bakken oil play.