LYIP Fights On To Protect Water, Requests Legislative Help

2022 was a relatively good year for the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project with regular maintenance taking place including replacing collapsing culverts under roads and water delivery canals, and repairing a concrete spillway. The LYIP applied for, and received, grants to begin replacing some failing concrete storm water underpasses under the main canal, and replacing a couple of worn-out pumps in the Savage irrigation district.

However, storm clouds remain on the horizon.

After years spent fighting to preserve the Intake diversion dam and LYIP itself, project manager James Brower sees fresh obstacles for farmers with the closing of Sidney Sugars and the ongoing discussion with the Bureau of Reclamation over whether or not the irrigators are responsible for future maintenance and repairs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) built endangered species fish bypass.

Sugar beets have traditionally been the major cash crop for valley farmers, providing dollars for the irrigation district to maintain its system of canals and drains. Fees are paid on a per acre basis. Having seen the effects of processing plant closures in other areas, Brower is concerned that those fees will decrease over time with the planting of less profitable crops. Brower believes there will be less dollars to farmers, meaning less dollars to the irrigation district, which means less money to operate and maintain the irrigation system. Those factors will slowly determine how much water is delivered, and how safely.

No federal or state dollars are received by LYIP. By Bureau of Reclamation law, any dollars spent by them must be repaid by the farmers. In 1978, LYIP reimbursed the USBR for all costs relating to the irrigation infrastructure, called "works", then in place, including the initial construction of the project which began in 1905. However, the property has never been transferred to the farmers. All the pipe, the repairs, the unplugging, replacing concrete, everything, is paid for by the farmers with a per acre fee.

The good news is that the new fish bypass worked even better than anticipated with 22 tagged pallid sturgeon using the bypass to travel as much as 165 miles up the Yellowstone and Powder Rivers. Along with the sturgeon, 10,000 other fish found safe travel using the bypass.

The disturbing news is that the new USACE built endangered species fish bypass suffered significant erosion in six or seven major areas due to a five-year high water event in June, 2022 during its first spring and summer. The bypass must be repaired since a wider, shallower bypass could affect passage of fish including the endangered pallid sturgeon. Repairs have begun, filling in eroded areas, and protecting those areas with rip rap, making some areas more durable than they were before.

Since USACE said it did not have the funds to repair the damage, the USBR agreed to cover one third of the cost to repair five major areas. The USBR is now indicating that it believes the farmers should be responsible for the work and funding on any future maintenance or repairs, or at least any maintenance or repairs needed after a seven-year "Adaptive Management Study".

The fish bypass is massive. The irrigation district does not own it, nor does it have the equipment or dollars to maintain it. The bypass was built by the USACE to satisfy the Endangered Species Act, which is a federal agency obligation, and only that entity has the equipment to maintain it for the good of those endangered species.

The bypass and weir were replaced because the USACE and the USBR have an endangered species problem that the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court said did not apply to the pre-existing, congressionally authorized Intake Diversion dam used by the LYIP. The cost to maintain the bypass is about recovery of pallid sturgeon and not the delivery of irrigation water.

LYIP is asking the public to contact their U.S. Senators and Representatives asking for their support for LYIP's legislative solution that would protect the farmers from paying for maintaining the USACE and USBR endangered species fish bypass. Please call, text, or write to Montana Senators Tester and Daines and representatives Rosendale and Zinke; and North Dakota senators Hoeven and Cramer, and representative Armstrong. Impress upon them that irrigators must not be forced to pay for future maintenance of the endangered fish bypass which was built by the USACE to mitigate the effects of their dams on the Missouri River.

Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project will continue to provide reliable water to irrigators in the area with the main canal being filled as soon as the seven-foot-tall siphons thaw out this spring.

 

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