SIDNEY — In this frontier farm town of sugar beets and oil wells, spring arrives with the turn of an iron wheel.
The floodgate crown rotates clockwise across threads of a jackscrew and again water flows through the 400 miles of canals, prompting a green bloom across 55,000 acres.
It has been like this for 105 years, ever since Theodore Roosevelt promised to raise irrigated communities from the arid dust of the West. The 26th president signed the Newland Reclamation Act in 1902 and communities like Sidney started to bloom.
Lately, there has been a lot of concern in this community that the government’s century-old promise has come into conflict with yet another pledge to preserve the pallid sturgeon, a rare ray-finned fish with a spoon bill that has been fading in number largely because dams downstream from the Yellowstone, on the Missouri River, have made survival difficult for the species.
Federal biologists hope the sturgeon will thrive if given room to roam upstream from the Missouri, in the Yellowstone. But that plan entails work on the diversion dam that has watered the Sidney area since 1909.
“Everything. Everything we have is irrigated in this valley, pretty much,” said farmer Dan Strasheim, who was seeding his fields with Soron spring wheat in anticipation of the canals, eight months dry, flowing again.
As he seeded this land first sown by his grandfather in 1928, his children watched from the living room picture window of Strasheim’s farm home across the road. A sugar beet farmer carting a giant grain drill rumbled by in a giant John Deere tractor.
Strasheim farms in the shadow of the Sidney Sugars refinery and an Anheuser-Busch malt barley elevator. Both the sugar refinery and beer company say their interest in Sidney would quickly dry up if water couldn’t be delivered by the river intake and canal system known as the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project.
"If it ever went away, I don't see us surviving long term here," said Russ Fullmer, Sidney Sugars agricultural manager.
Grower payments to area sugar beet farmers are $35 million to $45 million a year. Payroll at the sugar factory is about $3 million.
Farmers do their best to project confidence when discussing co-existence with endangered species, but there’s also an uneasiness about anything concerning water.
“All you have to do is look at an aerial map,” said Jim Brower, Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager. Pointing to a large, arid beige map of Eastern Montana, Brower places his index finger on a thin green ribbon along the Lower Yellowstone River. “Everything that’s irrigated is green.”
Everything that isn’t irrigated is the same parched brown color the landscape was before the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the LYIP, which is why Brower insists the irrigation project matters to the entire community.
In April, when federal officials held hearings about the future of the Lower Yellowstone diversion weir, supporters of the district in Sidney packed onto buses to attend. A local business provided sandwiches to keep the group fed.
Montana's U.S. senators got in on the act, urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give locals more time to weigh in. The Corps granted the request Friday, extending the comment period two weeks to May 16.
"Montana ingenuity built the Lower Yellowstone Project to provide pioneers farming dry land with a lifeline to grow crops," said Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont. "The diversion works and canal did not guarantee prosperity, but they signified an investment in the family farmers and ranchers who would work to feed Montana and the world."
Walsh said he's using his seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee to keep the irrigation project viable for another century.
In the last several years, the irrigators have lost ground with the federal government on what can be done to keep water flowing into the canals. Two years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the irrigation district it could no longer place large boulders across the river to protect the century-old weir that lifts the water level high enough to feed the LYIP irrigation canal.
The boulders, some weighing more than 10,000 pounds, prevent the weir from being destroyed by the large ice floes that drag across the Lower Yellowstone in the late winter when water levels are low.
When ice grinds through this area, as it did in March, it’s like a geological wrecking machine. The cottonwood trees just below the irrigation project intake had their bark stripped away by ice this winter. As recently as last week, eagles could be seen feasting on catfish pushed more than 300 feet away from the river by the white, frozen bulldozer that plowed through this area.
Ice floes have swept massive boulders downstream from the weir for a century. Downstream from the weir, there is a hundred-yard stretch of white-capped river created by boulders relocated by ice floes. The conditions of the water flowing through the steeply-sloped boulder field are too harsh for the endangered pallid sturgeon. But without the boulders, the river conditions are too harsh for the wooden weir.
“The first year the dam was built the ice tore the back end off,” said Don Steinbeisser Sr., whose ties to this area predate the irrigation project. “That’s when they started putting rocks in the river.”
Steinbeisser knows the bones of the irrigation project, as a longtime farmer and member of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. He has a healthy respect for the manpower and grit needed to construct the project a century ago.
After Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act into law, the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project was the first diversion the federal government approved.
The project entailed building a weir beneath a portion of the river several hundred yards wide. The weir, constructed completely from dense, water-resistant wood, created an almost wavelike shape beneath the entire width of the Yellowstone. On the upstream side of the weir, water pooled up deep enough for some of the water, about 14 percent, to be rerouted to a concrete and steel intake.
The project began in 1905 and didn’t produce water for farmers until 1909. Man camps sprung up along the project to accommodate laborers and engineers who not only had to coffer dam the Yellowstone sections at a time to tame the river, but also had to build a 72-mile main irrigation channel.
It was a federally approved irrigation project, but the farmers picked up the $4.1 million bill, agreeing to make “consumption payments” to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation every year until the debt was paid. Repayment wasn't easy.
“We finished paying for it in the 1970s,” Steinbeisser said. “Back in the 1930s, during the Depression, some of the farmers had to delay payment.”
The weir is in need of replacement, which is where the confluence of the farmers and the sturgeon begins.
The sturgeon has been dying off since construction of Lake Sakakawea a few miles downstream from where the green Yellowstone disappears into the swirl of the Missouri River. Sturgeon offspring need flowing water to survive and there aren’t enough miles of free-flowing water between the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project weir and the still water of Sakakawea reservoir on the Missouri.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a large bypass channel around the intake so sturgeon can swim around it, lay their eggs upstream from the intake and have enough free-flowing water for their offspring to survive. Rolled into the plan is a proposal to replace the wooden weir with one made of concrete. The project presents a rare challenge for the Army Corps of Engineers, because normally the Corps doesn't deal with old Reclamation Act structures like the Lower Yellowstone weir.
“It’s unusual for us to work on a Reclamation project,” said Chris Fassero, Army Corps project manager. “The Corps has an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to help preserve the pallid sturgeon on the Missouri River and the Corps built the reservoirs on the river.”
There really is no way to improve flow for sturgeon offspring at Sakakawea without removing the dam at the outlet of the 178-mile reservoir. The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project is the easier target, although construction would take 18 months and cost up to $60 million. The irrigation district would need permission once again to place rocks in the river to protect its old wooden weir until a replacement is built.
“I think we’ll get something worked out,” Steinbeisser said. “The farmers have to accommodate the sturgeon, that’s the law. I think we can do that.”