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St. Mary Canal Emergency Restoration Work Progresses

A photo of the collapse of Drop 5 in the St. Mary Canal taken in mid-May 2020.
Karl Christians
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
A photo of the collapse of Drop 5 in the St. Mary Canal taken in mid-May 2020.

When a critical drop of the St. Mary Canal collapsed 14 weeks ago, downstream irrigators along Montana’s Hi Line were left high and dry. If construction continues to progress at its current clip, water could be flowing again within months.

Jennifer Patrick is optimistic about the progress Sletten Construction is making on Drop 2 and Drop 5, two concrete drop structures that move the water through the canal from the St. Mary River on the Blackfeet Reservation into the North Milk River.

"They keep sending new schedule and how we can accelerate different things," Patrick said.

Patrick is the Milk River Joint Board of Control Project Manager. The St. Mary Canal is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project.

Patrick says they could be finished pouring concrete on Drop 2 by the end of Aug. and Drop 5 by the end of Sept., if everything stays on schedule. That would mean water could start flowing again in early Oct.

Drops 2 and 5 are concrete structures. The closest concrete suppliers are in Canada. That means lots of paperwork so trucks, drivers and concrete can move across a border closed to non essential traffic due to COVID 19.

Patrick says Drops 2 and 5 are in a remote part of the Blackfeet Reservation but just about five miles from the border, cutting time and costs.

"So both the Canadians and the U.S. all the way up to the top have helped us in customs and border patrol to get that going. It’s been a Congressional, state and border issues that is way above my head but they have gotten it done," Patrick said.

Patrick says this whole project has been a team effort.

"From the tribe, to the contractors, to HDR Engineering. All the way across. [Bureau of] Reclamation, state of Montana, Congressional delegation. I mean everyone has thrown their hat in here and helped us out," Patrick said.

The construction of Drop 2 and 5 is estimated at $8 million. At the end of July the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved an amendment by Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte to an appropriation bill that would provide $25 million for repairs to Bureau of Reclamation canals, including St. Mary Canal.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.