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Crews Rush To Repair St. Mary Canal After Collapse

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 2020.

The century-old St. Mary Canal has been a lifeline for communities along Montana’s Hi-Line. After a portion of it collapsed last month, agencies are scrambling to replace two key structures. 

The race is on to get water flowing again to the tribes, municipalities and irrigators that depend on the canal.

Crews started work June 22 on Drop 5, the concrete structure that collapsed on May 17, to determine the stability of the foundation under all the debris.

Jennifer Patrick is the project manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control, the group overseeing the construction.

"There is a lot of material that’s not there or has moved. Once you get in there, get the structure-the hydraulics-everything worked out from what you have now. There’s a lot of unknown. There’s a lot of unknowns on manpower, hauling, where you’re bring materials from, everything like that," Patrick says. 

She says construction will begin on Drop 2, another at-risk structure, later this week.

The price tag for both Drop 5 and Drop 2 is between $5 and $8 million dollars. Still to be determined is how the cost share will be divided between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the property and the system, and the water users who usually foot most of the bill for maintenance and operation.

If the Commissioner of Reclamation designates this as a Public Law 111-11 qualified emergency, extraordinary maintenance, the federal share and the users share climb closer to 50-50 and locals can tap into bonding, grants and loans from the state.

Patrick says the goal is to have the construction completed and water flowing again in time to replenish reservoirs and other storage systems for next year.

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.