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Blackfeet Tribe and Reclamation Bureau to share response at St. Mary Canal failure

Officials say the failure was caused by the age of the siphon pipes, which were installed more than a century ago.
Posted at 8:34 AM, Jun 19, 2024

The Blackfeet Tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will work together to address the impacts of this week’s St. Mary Canal siphon failures, tribal officials said Tuesday.

On June 17, a section of the St. Mary Canal siphon ruptured, resulting in localized flooding in Babb, on the northern part of the Blackfeet Reservation.

The canal is part of the Milk River Irrigation Project, a water system connecting the St. Mary River basin to the Milk River. The project provides irrigation water to 121,000 acres of land in Canada and along Montana’s Hi-Line.

The failure, according to Bureau of Reclamation project manager Steve Darlinton, was caused by the age of the siphon pipes, which were installed more than a century ago, in 1915, and a lack of funding to replace the siphons since, reports the Montana Free Press.

“It really had pretty minimal changes since construction. We’ve added a couple of expansion joints due to landslides, but it’s never failed, not like this,” Darlinton told Montana Free Press Tuesday. “So it’s all original construction, original steel, original rivets. It’s 110 years old, essentially, and it’s been starting to show its age more and more.”

Bureau of Reclamation personnel have since closed off the diversion from the St. Mary River, shutting off flow to the siphon system. Darlinton said it would take more than eight hours to drain completely. As of noon on June 18, water spilling from the siphons has slowed but not ceased.

Blackfeet member Bill Powell owns Hook’s Hideaway bar, rodeo arena and motel near the site of the siphon failures.

Flooding left the main road to his businesses impassable due to buildup of rocks and sediment. The property also experienced water damage and a loss of electricity from a downed utility pole.

Powell said his immediate concern is loss of revenue from the motel. He said he’s had to turn away about 30 guests since the siphons failed.

Bureau of Reclamation personnel were on-site Tuesday working on the construction of a new road, which Powell said should be complete by the end of the week.

The failure also impacted irrigation systems and tribal aquatic lands.

Blackfeet Environmental Office Aquatic Lands Protection Coordinator David Spotted Eagle Jr. said flooding caused a significant amount of sediment to flow into the St. Mary River below the canal failure site.

“That much sediment is going to destroy aquatic life habitat in the murky water. Fish aren’t going to be able to see their food,” Spotted Eagle Jr. said.

Spotted Eagle Jr. said the siphon failures will also affect downstream agriculture users who rely on the system for stock water, crop irrigation, and livestock boundaries.

On Tuesday, a day after the initial canal failure, Spotted Eagle Jr. attended a meeting between tribal leaders and agencies and representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation designed to establish communication between the tribe and the bureau.

“It’s important that they work with us because this occurred on tribal lands,” Spotted Eagle Jr. said. “Now the Blackfeet Tribe has to be consulted. So it brings us to the table now.”

Spotted Eagle Jr. said the Bureau of Reclamation has to acquire an Aquatic Lands Protection permit from the tribe’s environmental program before any clean-up and restoration work can be done. “We’re still assessing damage and repairs. Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at,” Darlinton told MTFP. “We’re still trying to put together a technical team to come on-site and talk about it.”


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