LYIP Completes Another Successful Irrigation Season


LYIP crews work to keep the canals free of plant growth and debris.

The ditches are drained and it's time for paperwork and construction at Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project (LYIP) according to project manager James Brower.

The accounts are being finalized, with personnel going through last year's audit and preparing for this year's. Staff has just finished verifying water assessment dues and new property owners. That information is given to the county courthouses so they can send out water assessments.

In addition to routine maintenance, LYIP crews will be working to repair an area of the canal south of the Savage beet dump. In August, a ditch rider noticed problems on a high bank. Russian olive trees had plugged a vertical drain, the canal started seeping, and what was a solid bank turned liquid. One vertical drain sloughed off plugging the Main Drain for the Main Canal that is supposed to take the seepage away and keep the Main Canal bank stable; but with such a steep bank and limited manpower, it was impossible to keep all the vertical drains clean. A crossing culvert plugged and all the water backed up, causing a major portion of the Main Canal Bank to crack off and start to sink. The LYIP heavy equipment operators worked hard for two days to remove the plugged culvert and clear out the deep drain. Brower dropped the water levels by a foot for safety. The combined Joint Boards of the irrigation districts agreed that it was better to have rationed water than no water at all since the crops needed one or two last irrigations before harvest. "The farmers all shared and co-operated," Brower said.

Other projects on the agenda include replacing a drain and a lateral that were completely wiped out during the flooding of 2011. It is a large piping project, part of which will be funded by FEMA.

There are also old corrugated metal culverts which need to be replaced by poly or concrete ones. The Bureau of Reclamation is also forcing the LYIP to remove all trees along the canals to help prevent future problems.

LYIP continues to use advancements in technology the make the project safer and more efficient. The latest project involved adding radio antennae to help monitor water levels in the canals. An alarm will go off if water levels get too high.

According to Brower, there are more priority projects than the district has the time or manpower to accomplish. They are currently hiring experienced heavy equipment operators and also need someone with ag experience to fill a ditch rider position.

"The Bureau of Reclamation said we're one of the best maintained irrigation districts in Montana, but we have a lot more to do," Brower said.

After spending $22 million building and upgrading the fish screens at the Intake diversion to protect the pallid sturgeon, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks started lobbying the Montana leadership, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Corps of Engineers to have the entire diversion weir removed. It would turn LYIP into a pumping irrigation project which would require $2.2 million in electricity per year. "Our power grid was built for small rural communities, not huge projects like this," Brower said. "Plus it would generate millions of pounds in additional carbon footprint."

In a remarkable show of unity, reinforced by a comprehensive economic study done by Kjeld Johnson showing an economic loss of $5.2 billion dollars over 10 years caused by unreliable irrigation, LYIP board members, and government entities from Montana and North Dakota, and the Bureau of Reclamation have successfully fought back. At the heart of the matter, the Corps has been told they can only spend the allocated funds at Intake, not anywhere else. Plans now call for a diversion stream to help preserve the sturgeon and still maintain reliable water for agriculture. Brower specifically had praise for State Representative Matt Rosendale who is also the chairman of the Intake Irrigation board. "He didn't just attend meetings, he knocked on doors in Helena and D.C. He lobbied the Montana leadership and agencies and directly worked with those and federal agencies and encouraged them to support LYIP and the local communities, farmers, businesses and economies." Meetings continue every 2 weeks discussing the best options for the district while meeting the endangered species obligations. LYIP is also confident, with assurances from the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation, that they will be able to add rock at the top of the diversion next year, ensuring a better flow of water for the season.

The staff at Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project includes, L to R, Lois Stephens, map tech; Cindy Nygaard, administrative assistant and James Brower, project manager.

Brower has worked with 7 other projects in the past 16 years and says he has never worked with such a good irrigation board. "They always co-operate for the good of the water users and the irrigation project as a whole," he said. During the worst of the FW&P negotiations, farmers would leave their combines to attend meetings in Billings to let people know just how important the project is to the communities. "They keep their heads, they're always professional and polite. They don't always agree, but they always work together and concede to what's best for the users," Brower stated. When meetings involved assessment levels, the overwhelming consensus was to NOT raise assessments. After looking at the budget line by line and discussing the obligations of the district, the board agreed to raise the assessment a little to keep everything sound financially and fix things as they need to be. "They set personal agendas aside for the good of the water user," Brower said. "I've never seen a board consistently analyze and think things through, present their different ideas and then agree to do what's best for the water users," Brower said.

Brower finds his job at LYIP very satisfying. "It's a non-profit. We feel we're doing a real community service, providing safety to the community in our operations," he said. "The operators work sometimes long hours on repairs to provide safety to the community and water to the users."

After 2 years, Brower is proud to be a Montanan. "I always was at heart. I was just born in the wrong state," he said. "These are good neighbors who co-operate with each other. When someone is sick or hurt, they take care of each other. I hope to spend the rest of my life here."


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