Majority show support for Intake plan, but challenges remain
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
A near-capacity crowd filled the Dawson County High School auditorium Wednesday night for a public hearing on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to replace the existing Intake Diversion Dam.
The Corps’ plan is to replace the existing 108-year-old timber and rock structure with a concrete weir and to cut a 3-mile long fish bypass channel through Joe’s Island on the river’s east bank.
The push to replace the existing Intake structure is being driven by an Endangered Species Act mandate to try and save the endangered pallid sturgeon, which traditionally spawned upstream in the Yellowstone and which cannot swim over the existing dam.
Despite some voices of opposition, the majority of people who spoke up at the hearing espoused strong support for the plan. A show of hands from the crowd at one point also signaled a majority of those in attendance favored moving forward with the project.
“I don’t want the farmers in Dawson and Richland counties to become an endangered species, so let’s get this thing done,” Dawson County Commissioner Jim Skillestad said.
Sidney Sugars manager Russ Fulmer said moving forward with the plan was critical to the survival of the region’s sugar beet industry.
“Without the irrigation project, Sidney Sugars would cease immediately,” Fulmer said. “We strongly support the bypass, and we think it’s a win-win situation.”
The fear among Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project officials, producers and others who depend on the LYIP’s irrigated land for business and revenue is that if action isn’t taken soon to modify the diversion structure to allow for better fish passage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will use the Endangered Species Act to completely remove the diversion dam.
LYIP manager James Brower has said if the project doesn’t move forward, that scenario is “probably what’s going to happen.”
Even with that reality, some remained critical of the Corps’ plan.
Local outspoken Corps critic Art Gehnert accused the Corps of ignoring other proposals and wanting “to build a dam,” and of refusing requests to extend the comment and study period. He also raised doubts about whether pallid sturgeon would actually use the bypass channel.
“I think it’s got to be relooked at,” Gehnert said.
Also voicing some criticism was state senator and congressional candidate Matt Rosendale.
During the meeting, Rosendale criticized the Corps for selling the community “a bill of goods,” several years ago when they first proposed the new canal headworks, fish screens and a modified diversion structure.
Interviewed after the meeting, Rosendale said he didn’t really care what the Corps did at Intake to create fish passage, so long as the LYIP and its producers got their water and didn’t end up footing the bill for it.
“Here’s what I want to make sure of, that the LYIP has a continual, reliable supply of water which fulfills their water right and that when (the Corps) addresses the Endangered Species Act, that that work is done in such a fashion that it doesn’t cost (LYIP) additional money or causes the operation and maintenance to be burdened by those producers,” Rosendale said.
Rosendale’s comments echo concerns Brower has raised about the operation and maintenance of the bypass channel portion of the project.
In the event the bypass channel were damaged, Brower has said the LYIP “made our position clear” to the federal agencies involved that they should not have to pay for the channel’s maintenance.
“We would accept responsibility for the new concrete weir, but the fish bypass is a fish and wildlife deal,” he said in a recent interview.
However, officials from the Corps and Bureau of Reclamation threw cold water over the notion they might share any responsibility in O&M costs when asked about it after the meeting.
Corps representative Tiffany Vanosdall said once construction of the project was complete, the Corps would turn it over to the BOR and the LYIP and would bear no responsibility for O&M costs.
“It’s between (BOR) and the irrigation district on the O&M,” Vanosdall said.
BOR Area Manager Brent Esplin said his agency’s hands were tied by the federal legislation which authorized it.
“Under the reclamation law and contract, the (irrigation) district is responsible for managing the O&M,” Esplin said.
He noted that only an act of Congress to amend the agency’s authorizing legislation could change that.
The Corps’ assessment estimates that the annual O&M costs on the bypass channel will be $57,000.
As far as Rosendale is concerned, any increased costs to the LYIP to try to save a fish is unacceptable.
“If the nation feels the pallid sturgeon warrants preservation, then the rest of the nation needs to shoulder that expense, not just 500 families and a couple of communities in Eastern Montana and North Dakota,” he said.
Another wrinkle to the whole issue is there is currently no funding in the Corps’ budget to begin construction on the project, which is estimated to cost a total of $58.9 million.
The Corps did have funding in this fiscal year’s budget for the project, but they recently released it because they determined they could not get the project started before the September 30 deadline to do so passed.
Brower told the crowd he was unaware of that fact until mere minutes before the meeting began.
“They explained to me that if they voluntarily gave the money back, it would be easier for them to get it back rather than being discredited by their own agency,” Brower said.
Reach Jason Stuart at email@example.com.