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Commissioner Veeder and JDA Director Tour Dam
By Renée Jean 
Williston Herald

GLENDIVE, Mont. — There is a quiet corner on the Yellowstone River, across from the Glendive Intake Diversion Dam’s canal entrances, where pallid sturgeon gather in the spring as they try to find a way upriver to spawn.

That quiet spot is where a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation project has proposed constructing a fish bypass channel that the endangered species could use to find a way upriver.

The project, however, has run afoul of environmental groups. They want to see the underwater weir, which has served 58,000 acres of cropland in the MonDak for more than 100 years, removed instead.

That quiet area, a source of much contention, was among the highlights on a tour arranged for a small North Dakota delegation that included Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford.

While the Glendive Intake Diversion Dam is often referred to as a Montana project, about one-third of its 58,000 acres of cropland do lie in North Dakota. That has prompted the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project to seek support from its sister state, reaching out to its  congressional delegation in July, and more recently its state leaders, as they seek a legislative solution to their legal troubles.

Project director James Brower talked with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., about the problems the Glendive Intake Diversion Dam faces during a listening session on farm issues the senator held in Watford City in July. She promised to review the matter at the time.

Heitkamp, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., have all previously expressed support for the diversion dam, which serves some of their constituents. 

Montana’s Congressional delegation has also been supportive, seeking language in appropriations bills that directed the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation to retain funding for the project.

On Thursday, the irrigation project hosted Sanford, along with McKenzie County Commissioner and retired economic developer Gene Veeder and its new economic developer, Dan Stenberg.

Veeder wondered why the Glendive project hasn’t been on North Dakota’s annual water tour yet. Sanford, meanwhile, was very interested to know how the project worked, as well as the rates of flow coming into the diversion dam canals. 

Brower told him it is 1,374 cubic feet per second. The number so interested Sanford he had Brower repeat it for a video he made with his smartphone, with the rushing water in the background.

The intake at Glendive includes large fish screens to keep small fish and larvae from entering the diversion canals, and Sanford took a turn at raising one of the great metal cylinders for closer inspection.

Brushes are used to clean the screens of mud and weeds from time to time. The operation of these was demonstrated, after which Veeder took a turn lowering the screen.

On the return journey, the group viewed wildlife management areas created by the diversion dam’s spillways, including one that serves the Seven Sisters. Several hundred acres of wildlife management areas have been created by these spillways, and some of them have been purchased by state entities to manage for wildlife.

During this part of the tour, Sanford was shown what appeared to be a roaring creek surrounded by a healthy riparian area. Locals refer to it as Crane Creek. 

It’s not actually Crane Creek, however. It’s a spillway, and part of the irrigation system. The actual Crane Creek is a tiny trickle of water from a spring, so small the tour missed it the the first time they passed by it.

Without water from the diversion dam, that tiny trickle is all the water Crane Creek would be able to muster, Brower explained, and the large, healthy wildlife area they had just viewed would disappear from the map. So would hundreds of other areas that are incidentally supported by the irrigation project’s gravity-based operation.

North of Fairview, Brower showed the trio a pumping station. It has to be moved off the river in winter because the Yellowstone’s ice floes in spring would sweep it away. Meanwhile, the channel was visibly shifting course again.

If the irrigation project went to all pumping units, dredging would be needed on a regular basis, and rip-rap would be needed on the shore lines to prevent such shifts around the pumping units. The latter would increase the river’s current speed and deepen its channel. Both dredging and increased speeds pose difficulties for some aquatic species.

Not only that, but if the underwater weir that raises water levels is removed, natural side channels that have become important for some fish species in the river, according to Montana State University studies, would dry out.

Brower said managers of the project would like to add an automatic gate at the north end of their project to increase the number of acres they serve in North Dakota. Presently, that area runs at 70 percent capacity as a safety precaution. With an automatic gate, however, that portion of the canal could run at full capacity of water and serve more acres in North Dakota.

Various funding mechanisms were considered to help with that and, given that this portion of the project is in McKenzie County, Sanford and Veeder both promised to look at options to help the project expand on its 18,000 acres in North Dakota.

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