Congress opens tap for Montana water projects

2014-05-25T00:30:00Z 2014-05-30T11:35:16Z Congress opens tap for Montana water projectsBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A bill for $12 billion supporting several Montana water projects is on its way the President Barack Obama’s desk after House and Senate approval last week.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act improves the odds for several Montana water projects, including a fish passage and new intake for the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project.

The project, which delivers water to more than 400 miles of canals around Glendive and Fairview, is key to Eastern Montana’s multimillion dollar farm economy. The bill increases the Army Corps of Engineers requirement to consult with local groups who have an interest in the intake.

The fish passage and intake are part of an effort to help the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species that biologists hope to recover by using the fish passage to keep sturgeon offspring in flowing water during a crucial time in the sturgeon development.

The community has been concerned that its need for irrigation water would take a backseat the sturgeon recovery.

The community wants both the sturgeon and the farmers taken care of by the project.

“In Montana, we know that if you don’t have water, you don’t have much,” Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont. said in a press release. “Our water resources and infrastructure are critical to our state’s economy and our way of life, and it’s important that these resources are maintained and strengthened for future generations.”

The bill also provides more favorable federal funding terms for large tribal water projects, like Fort Peck and Rocky Boy’s/ North Central Montana regional water projects.

Years in the making and several hundred million dollars in cost, the projects address water scarcity and clean water challenges along the Hi Line.

Typically, the federal government requires local governments to shoulder 20 percent of the bill for such projects, but the bill passed Friday could waive the buy-in requirement for tribes, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. John Walsh, said.

The bill also allows the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out planning for water resource development in Indian County with tribal request.

Also included in the bill was a Montana proposal to study ways to reduce flood risks and moderate the impacts of extreme weather events along the Columbia, Missouri and Yellowstone river drainages.

Montana’s congressional delegation asked that those steps be taken in light of the extreme flooding in 2011 and the potential for flooding in 2014 with extremely high mountain snowpack levels.

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