Landowners sing praises of diversion dam near Glendive

Jason Stuart
Yellowstone Newspapers

A sizeable crowd of passionate local residents, ag producers and local officials gathered under the sweltering July sun on Sunday at the Intake diversion dam site in Dawson County for a meeting with Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, who made a brief stop to survey the site and hear locals’ concerns about the embattled irrigation project. 

A couple of common themes emerged during the discussion, with locals expressing their deep concerns about what would happen to the area’s economy if environmental groups force a complete removal of the diversion structure on the Yellowstone River near Glendive, while others argued that Intake has proven a boon to the local environment, not a detriment, over its more than a century of existence. 

Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project manager James Brower slammed the two environmental groups — the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council — which have to date succeeded in blocking via a lawsuit filed in federal court construction of a new concrete weir and fish bypass channel designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide the endangered pallid sturgeon passage around Intake in the hopes it would allow the species to move upriver and successfully spawn. 

Brower accused the environmental groups of being opportunists who only pounced on Intake when they saw an opportunity to force removal of the Intake structure, which he said was “never part of the deal” in the nearly two decades that the LYIP, the Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wild- life Service have been working on a plan to provide pallids a way around Intake. 

Brower argued that the LYIP and government agencies have nearly two decades of study and science on their side while the environmental groups have nothing more than assertions that the fish bypass won’t work. 

“This project, they’ve been working on this for over 20 years, and this bypass has been studied for over five years,” he said. “(The environmental groups are) saying we didn’t study this enough, but they want to remove the dam with no study.” 

Brower argued that if anyone is blocking pallid sturgeon recovery, it’s the environmentalists. He noted that the remaining wild pallids in the Yellowstone are nearing the end of their ability to breed, with the fish averaging some 60 years of age, and that construction of the new weir and bypass channel was supposed to have been done two years ago. 

“They’re causing an actual harm to the pallid sturgeon with a court delay over a theoretical concern that (the proposed fish bypass) may not be enough,” Brower said. 

Brower also bristled that the environmental groups have targeted Intake for removal, rather than the Garrison Dam which forms Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River in North Dakota. He noted that biologists have identified Lake Sakakawea as being the “killer” of pallid sturgeon fry, as there are not enough river miles between Intake and the lake for the tiny fish to develop enough to survive when they enter the lake. The cold, clear, oxygen deprived waters of Lake Sakakawea prove a death knell for pallid fry, either through the stress the lake’s harsh environment places on them or the fact that the clear waters make them easy prey for predators. 

“You have the dead body in Lake Sakakawea, you have the murder weapon in Lake Sakakawea, but it’s our dam they’re coming after, and we think it’s because there’s only 400 farm families to defend it,” Brower said. 

What would happen to not only those 400 LYIP farm families, but to the economy of the region, was the foremost concern on the minds of those there Sunday. Brower reiterated that a complete removal of Intake would likely spell the doom of the LYIP. 

Brower said the estimated additional annual operations and maintenance cost of $2 million for a pump system would be more than LYIP producers could bear, given that “they’re barely breaking even” as it is. He also said the LYIP believes the O&M estimates supplied by the Corps are “grossly underestimated” because the engineers did not take into account the frequency with which irrigation pumps break down. 

Beyond the potential for some 400 families to lose their livelihood, Brower and others also spoke to the ripple effects to the economy across the region if the LYIP ceased to exist. 

Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell compared the value of the LYIP’s irrigated farmland — an average of $463 per acre compared to the $39 per acre for dryland farm plots or rangeland — and argued that the county’s tax base would take a massive hit if the LYIP were to dry up.  “Our tax base would be wiped out,” Mitchell said. 

A man who identified himself as an employee of ProBuild in Sidney told Gianforte that he believes if the LYIP were to go, businesses like his across the area would suffer as well, possibly even forcing some to go out of business. 

Brower also noted that with a major drought gripping the region, the irrigated farmland of the LYIP is able to help provide an extremely valuable commodity to ranchers across the region — hay.

“If we get shut down, where would people be feeding their livestock?” Brower said. “Without us, the price of feed’s not just going to go up in eastern Montana, it’s going to go up two to three states away.” 

Intake supporters made environmental arguments for the diversion structure’s existence, arguing that it has created an oasis of green vegetation and animal life in the Yellowstone Valley downstream. 

“There were probably 10,000 acres that are greened up because of this deal, and that’s a sportsman’s paradise right there,” said local state Sen. Steve Hinebauch. 

Brower interjected to say that Intake has actually created 10,000 acres of riparian woodland directly along the river, but a total of 75,000 acres of “green-up” throughout the valley, and has provided other animal species, some of them threatened in their own right, with critical habitat. 

Illustrating Brower’s point were the more than a dozen American white pelicans float- ing on the river directly below the headworks. The huge birds, listed as a “species of concern” by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, could clearly be seen using the build-up of water at the head of the diversion structure to their advantage to catch fish to eat. 

Gianforte said the long-term solution to the Intake issue is revising the Endangered Species Act to cut down on “frivolous lawsuits,” which he tabbed the lawsuit against the Intake project as being. He noted that committees in both houses of Congress held hearings on ESA reform bills intended to do just that last week, saying he thought those bills represented “common sense solutions,” though many congressional Democrats had loudly denounced them. 

“We need to use that act to help species recover, but we need to use science, not emotions, in making those deci- sions. We’ve got to do the right thing for the producers, for the community and for the fish,” Gianforte said.