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Lawmakers Begin to Hear About Infrastructure Needs Around the State

Jackie Yamanaka

Lawmakers are evaluating proposals to improve irrigation, water and sewer systems. It’s the beginning of the process to decide which infrastructure projects are funded.

“In the appropriations process we always talk about vehicles. We need vehicles. Well in this case (House Bills) 6, 7, and 8 are trucks,” says Representative Jim Keane, D-Butte, the bill’s sponsor. “They’re actually trucks loaded with goods and services that will be delivered to the state of Montana.”

Among the items hoping to get on those “trucks” include, improvements for a sewage lagoon in Fort Smith, creation of a water and sewer district for the Four Corners area west of Bozeman, or a fix of a dangerous irrigation tunnel in Huntley.

“That tunnel was constructed in 1913 and it’s collapsing,” says Scott Aspenlieder, the engineer helping the Huntley Irrigation District with this project. He says about 5 years ago a portion of the structure collapsed. While it was eventually cleared, he says it remains too dangerous for crews to make any more repairs. That’s why the Huntley Irrigation District is seeking a $13 million loan from the state.

“Fortunately Huntley Project is in a position where they grow high value crops with malt barley in the Coors facility local there. They’ve got sugar beets and the sugar beet factory in Billings. And they do grow a lot of seed corn and silage there so they’re better equipped than most irrigation districts to be able to handle that kind of debt load,” he says. Still he says it will burden irrigators with some of the highest fees in the state.

Aspenlieder says this project will also help with overall public safety by eliminating the tunnel where a 12-year old girl from Lockwood drowned last summer.

Another infrastructure project lawmakers are considering for funding concerns aquatic invasive species (AIS). 

“In case you haven’t seen what these mussels look like here they are,” says Joann Wallenburg as she hoists a case with a PVC pipe that’s completely encased in mussels.

Wallenburg represents the Missoula County Weed District and the Clearwater Resource Council. She says the threat of aquatic invasive species is real and scary.

“Hopefully the detection of the mussel larvae in Tiber and Canyon Ferry has served as a wake-up call to our great state,” she says. “We need to get serious about this issue.”

“In Western Montana we have the bodies/personnel and the desire to be the boots on the ground looking for AIS in hopes to get introductions early and to be able to act swiftly whether that be mussels or milfoil but we need funding to run these boots,” she says.

Late last year, state officials formed the Montana Mussel Response Team and announced immediate temporary emergency restrictions.

These and other projects, while in separate House Bills, are ultimately tied to the main infrastructure measure, generally referred to as the bonding bill. In recent Legislative sessions, Republican lawmakers have openly fought with the Democratic executive branch over what projects were selected and how to pay for them – cash or bonds.