The Roundup -

Public Meetings to Decide Fate of Irrigation in the Yellowstone Valley


Can this community afford a 1.2 billion dollar loss, every three years? That is the potential impact if the new Intake diversion plan is not approved this year.

The Endangered Species Act requires a fish passage on the Yellowstone River. Regional Montana Fish and Wildlife leaders have said they prefer a complete removal of the existing diversion dam and the return of the river to its pre 1907 state. Goodbye Sidney Sugars. Goodbye Busch Ag. Goodbye to many businesses from Glendive to Trenton that rely on agriculture.

Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager James Brower has been meeting every two weeks for the past year with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife as well as other government entities to design the most reliable plan that will provide passage for the pallid sturgeon and other at risk fish, yet still provide a reliable source of water for irrigation.

After starting with 104 possible scenarios, the list was scientifically narrowed down to two. One was the original rock ramp which was cost prohibitive, had much higher maintenance costs and had less chance of biological success.

The chosen plan involves constructing a 6' wide, fish friendly concrete weir, which will cause minimal impact on the river. A gradual slope downstream, using existing rock that LYIP has placed over the last 100 years, plus a steeper engineered rock ramp upstream provide passage for all the species of fish in the Yellowstone, except the pallid sturgeon. The front of the weir will be armored with hard rock slabs about 1' thick anchored with rebar to prevent erosion or damage to the concrete, especially from ice chunks. The new design uses less concrete and rebar than the fish screens and new head works that the environmentalists wanted during the last attempt. Proper placement of the weir and proposed fish bypass provide a more natural flow of water for the fish and stops the big eddy and recurring erosion from the existing diversion dam. "It will be the most fish friendly weir in the Yellowstone River," Brower stated.

To provide passage for the pallid sturgeon, a bypass has been developed to provide a constant flow of water without the extreme velocity that the sturgeon cannot tolerate. The critically reinforced passage on Joe's Island forms an almost natural path for the sturgeon with no trauma entering or exiting.

Brower was at the Federal Center in Denver for three days last week to test the new plan. A 1/16 scale model was built by the Bureau of Reclamation and every possible water condition was tested with large pumps.

The weir and bypass performed exactly as it should in every condition from low water to the flood conditions seen in 2011, a 150 year event, or the ice jams seen this spring. Reliable irrigation water was provided, as was greatly improved passage for the pallid sturgeon and other fish. "Everyone was excited about how well this worked," Brower said.

"This fish passage is the last chance of having the Federal Government pay instead of just the locals to achieve mandatory fish passage," Brower emphasized.

Funding is in place only for 2014 through the Corps of Engineers. If that money is not used at Intake, the dollars will go to projects on the Missouri River and the diversion dam project will revert to the Bureau of Reclamation. If that happens, any dollars spent would have to be reimbursed by the irrigators. That would be disastrously cost prohibitive.

If Corps dollars are used, flood damages to the proposed fish bypass, similar to the damaged lateral from the 2011 flood, would be covered by FEMA or another federal agency. If construction of a fish bypass is left up to the Bureau of Reclamation, if they allowed a diversion at all, irrigators would be required to cover the cost of construction and repairs, again cost prohibitive.

The Corps funding is allocated now, for fiscal 2014. Any movement of that money to another year would require an act of Congress. "The retirement of Senator Baucus, former chair of the Senate finance committee greatly reduces the chances of any other federal funding paying for the fish passage," Brower explained.

There is no way to overstate the necessity of a strong show of support for this proposed project during the public meetings. According to Brower, a vocal contingency in Glendive has been providing misleading information, scaring farmers and taxpayers alike. Accurate information will be presented at the public meetings.

Local citizens who appreciate the stability that agriculture has brought to our valley need to take the time to attend one or both of the public meetings scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 23 at the Glendive High School and 6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 24 at Sidney Senior High School.

"Removal of irrigation at Klamath Falls, OR proves that they can take away the water," Brower said. Oregon has since shut down another irrigation project and several diversion dams have been removed in Idaho and Washington as well.

Protecting the environment and endangered species is mandatory. Maintaining the lifeblood of agriculture and the business community is just as important. The new fish passage can provide for both. Please attend one or both of the upcoming public meetings to show your support for the fish friendly concrete weir and reinforced fish bypass.

For more information, please contact James Brower at 406-433-1306, or make an appointment to visit the LYIP office at 2327 Lincoln Ave., Sidney.


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