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Richland County Commissioners Reflect On The LYIP Victory


August 22, 2018 | View PDF

Richland County Commissoner Duane Mitchell speaks at a public meeting held June 30, 2016 in Billings. He is wearing a shirt reading "Support the Bypass Channel. Save the Farmer!"

The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project, which diverts water from the Yellowstone River to nearby thirsty farms along the river that need irrigation to grow profitable crops, is made possible by the Intake Diversion Dam. That dam, located between Glendive and Sidney, Montana, sits beneath the water and is designed to raise the water level, pushing water into the canal system. The dam has been under legal attack by Defenders of Wildlife, an environmentalist organization headquartered in Washington D.C. They claim that Corps of Engineers plans to renovate the structure will not do enough to help the pallid sturgeon access spawning territory further upstream. After months of legal hurdles, permission has finally been granted by a Ninth District Judge to proceed with the plans that will keep the dam and irrigation project functioning.

Most elected officials in Richland County and Eastern Montana have been sympathetic to the irrigation project and dam, and some have been active in building public consensus in favor of agriculture and the dam revision plans. These include Richland County commissioners, who actively advocated for local farmers and the irrigation project.

The Roundup spoke with the Richland County Commissioners about the legal victory and their hopes that the battle is finally over.

When asked if the legal challenges were behind us, Duane Mitchell said, "According to Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager, James Brower, it is. But, according to other reports, these people could still come back at us and get another shot legally. The likelihood of this happening is small. I'm just saying 'praise the Lord' at the moment, we won."

Mitchell said of Judge Brian Morris, "I'm not so sure there was any pressure put on that judge, or if so, where it came from exactly. He's a very liberal judge, a tree hugger and environmentalist, and he was trying his darndest to make sure that they would win."

"The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals forced it," Mitchell continued, explaining that the appellate court put Judge Morris in a position that required a ruling for the irrigation project.

Mitchell explained, "Defenders of Wildlife was given ample time by [Judge Morris] to say why the 9th Circuit was wrong and they couldn't. The judge was definitely on their side, but in the end there was nothing he could do."

Mitchell also believed that there might have been some influence from the overwhelming public support and legislators who were making their opinions known.

"I think our congressional people might have applied some pressure," Mitchell said.

Richland County Commissioner, Loren Young, also expressed cautious optimism that the struggle was finally behind the irrigation project.

Young said, "I don't think there's any way of knowing it's over for sure. It's probably over, but depends if they have money to appeal. If it can still go to the Supreme Court, they can keep it up. We just don't know for sure."

He continued, "I don't think anything is ever over until it's over, but they're going to leave it alone for a while. They were pretty cocky the first go around, talking about water temperature at the Ft. Peck dam being bad for fish spawning, and all that. I don't trust these legalized domestic terrorists whatsoever."

When asked to what he credits the judge's decision, Young said, "The first is the number of people that showed up. But secondly, it was the first go-round when the 9th Circuit overturned and finger slapped the judge. He didn't want to be overturned again."

Young explained, "All I saw on their side were the two attorneys. On our side, there was a crowd."

Weir completed and all temporary work removed, February 14, 1910.

Being asked the same question, as to if the fight is over, Richland County Commissioner, Shane Gorder, said, "It's a tough question to answer. I would feel comfortable when construction starts. Anything is possible, in terms of filing another suit. I just don't know what they would file this time. I do think it's over and from what I understand they'll get it done and that's good news."

Gorder stated, "I do know when I was in Great Falls the judge really focused on asking the Defenders of Wildlife why he should rule contrary to the 9th Circuit. I think he figured he should really rule the same way as the 9th Circuit."

Attorneys for Defenders of Wildlife do not claim defeat, although they acknowledge they're at an impasse. The Corps of Engineers is now accepting bids to complete the project and is free to begin as soon as possible.


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