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The Lower Yellowstone Project, which draws water from the Yellowstone River above Intake Dam, has been unable to get its full water right of 1,374 cubic feet per second since the installation of a new $19.3 million headgate in April 2012.

“The farmers are rationing and it’s endangering our 56,000 acres of crops,” said James Brower, project manager for the district.

The canal annually diverts about 327,000 acre-feet of water into 79 miles of main canal and 400 miles of maintained ditches. Farmers using the water mainly grow corn and sugar beets.

The irrigation district’s problems are several. Dry weather has dropped the Yellowstone River to 3,260 cfs at Glendive, just upstream. Normally at this time of the year the flow is almost double at 7,000 cfs.

“We’re getting to the point where we would be challenged even if we didn’t have the new system,” said Brent Esplin, Montana area office manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

BuRec is helping to manage the new system since its installation. As part of that, the agency will pay for three new shafts that are used to raise and lower fish screens after the shafts were damaged when the system’s brakes locked.

Second, the district has not placed rock in the existing dam to divert more water since receiving a warning from the Army Corps of Engineers that a permit is required to place rock in the river.

“Somebody complained to the Corps of Engineers and they told us we could no longer rock without a permit,” Brower said, even though the irrigators and previous federal agencies had placed rock in the Intake Dam since its construction more than 100 years ago.

“We should be grandfathered in,” Brower said. “The feds themselves rocked it long before they had these regulations.”

The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project received a new headgate two years ago as part of a package deal. The new structure includes large screens to prevent fish from entering the canal. Previous estimates put the number of fish flushed into the canals at 500,000.

The headgate was part of a package deal that included modifications to the 12-foot high, 700-foot wide dam that’s used to divert water to the structure, which had to be placed farther upstream than the old headgate. But delays have stalled improvements to the dam, which was to be constructed with the idea that endangered pallid sturgeon would be able to get around the structure. It’s believed that by swimming upstream, the few wild fish left in the Yellowstone may have a better chance at successfully reproducing.

Two proposals have been investigated as possible answers to rebuilding the dam and allowing fish passage. One would create a gradual rock ramp that would provide slow enough flows for the pallid sturgeon to swim upstream. The estimated cost is about $90 million.

The second proposal is to build a concrete weir to replace the dam coupled with a bypass channel that would allow fish passage. The estimate for that project is $59.9 million.

Progress stalled this spring when officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks questioned whether either method would allow pallid sturgeon to swim upstream and who would be on the hook to pay for modifications to the chosen design if it didn’t allow sturgeon past.

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“The sad thing is that 99 percent of the fish could go over the concrete weir, but not the pallid sturgeon,” Brower said. “If these were salmon or trout, they could find their way up an easy and cheap ramp.”

To further complicate the irrigation district’s problems, a section of the canal near Savage recently sloughed, so even if more water could be diverted from the river, it would endanger the structural integrity of that section

of the canal.

The irrigation season runs until the last week of September, so Brower said he will wait until then to make repairs.

In the meantime, Brower said, he has submitted the paperwork to get approval to add rock to the dam and remains hopeful that the Corps of Engineers and state and federal agencies can come to a permanent solution for the dam’s redesign.

The stakeholders are meeting in a conference call Thursday.

“No matter what they decide, we need to be able to add rock to the river,” Brower said. “And we need assurances from the Corps of Engineers that they won’t walk away from the project when it’s only half done.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.