MonDak Irrigated Crop Production To Face Detrimental Impacts Following Fort Peck Test Flows

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Omaha District) will be executing an experiment that involves fluctuating dam releases of Fort Peck Dam between April and July 2023. This experiment causes a variety of concerns for several people, especially area irrigators and farmers.

The financial impact from executing these tests is estimated in the millions of dollars due to a decrease in power generation when water is dumped over spillways instead of through turbines, a blow to the recreation economy on Fort Peck Reservoir, and a loss of irrigation water for Missouri River farmers. The Corps is also concerned that flows could damage the Fort Peck spillway, which could cost millions of dollars to fix. The cost of repairing any spillway damages could ultimately be passed down to ratepayers, such as irrigators.

An estimated 160 pumps, located near Fort Peck Dam, provide irrigation for 70,000 acres of cropland between Richland, Roosevelt, McCone, and Valley counties in addition to Fort Peck Tribes. Conducting this release several times in a few years would be a burden to several farming operations. The target flows are too high, the drifting flow is too low and the flow release of change from high to low occurs too rapidly. The impacts to both the mainstream and the side channel will deter crop production due to untimely irrigation.

“High water is going to be complicated because some pump sites will not be usable, and then when the water goes down, you will have a muddy river bottom where you would not be able to get in there with equipment and fix these pump sites,” said Dick Iversen, Missouri River Conservation Districts Council member.

A primary irrigated crop in the MonDak area is sugar beets. The crop is very sensitive to soil moisture, yields would decline significantly with a reduction in irrigation.

Matt Stedman, a Culbertson and Brockton area farmer, said “It is detrimental on both sides of the river. It will determine where we raise acres and how many acres we raise. If they decide to do it after we put our crops in, it’ll be extremely costly and detrimental to us. We are 100% affected by the irrigation for the Missouri River right there so everything they do from the high rise to the low rise directly affects us. “

Sidney Sugars Incorporated, a leading economic driver for the region, has estimated that they could lose up to $25 million (approximately 20% of their production) due to lost production by Missouri River irrigators. The company indicated that a loss this big would put them out of business.

Dave Garland, Sidney Sugars general manager said, “Approximately 22% of our contracted acres will be directly affected by these test flows. With this loss, the potential to close the plant is real.” He said,“ The closing of the factory is anything but temporary or short-term. I respectfully urge the Corps to consider the threat that these flow tests pose to the viability of Sidney Sugars and the impact it will have on the surrounding communities. Our hope is that the USACE will purse the No Action Alternative.”

The entire region will feel this impact. Richland County will experience lost property tax revenue, while the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes will lose a valuable employment partnership. A detailed report of this economic impact was provided to the individuals contracted by the USACE this summer but does not appear to be included in the DEIS.

“It doesn’t just affect the farmers, it affects the economy and the entire area,” added Dana Berwick, Roosevelt County Conservation District member, and Bainville/Culbertson farmer.

In addition to this, there are several issues with farmers obtaining crop insurance on their affected crops - due to this type of damage being caused by a man-made occurrence such as this.

The area communities also depend heavily on the increased tax base irrigated land provides to their local economies.

The Fort Peck Tribes will also be negatively impacted by the experiment. Stating in a letter to the Corps, “While the tribes support the restoration of the pallid sturgeon, Tribes are concerned about how the proposed actions will affect the Fort Peck Reservation’s boundaries, water rights, tribal water supply, and irrigation systems, and tribal inclusion in the planning process.”

Fort Peck tribes also has about 80 employees that work for Sidney Sugars Inc, meaning the experiment could cost them their jobs.

Several groups have been speaking out against the test flows ever since the plan was announced; participating in meetings, coordinating irrigation pump site surveys, working directly with the Corps to answer questions. People opposed to the experiment, still seem to not have gained much momentum.

“Farmers are not against the pallid sturgeon at all. We would just wish they would find a responsible way to do this,” added Berwick.

Iversen said, “We feel fairly discouraged. We went through all of this work, and they basically did not change anything. They are going ahead and doing something that will potentially break a lot of farmers, ruin the sugar industry, and affect the employment of the tribes.”

Stedman, said, “We have been fighting that battle and doing polls and stuff with them for the last year. We have a voice and did what we could do and I don’t know where to go from there.”


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