By Michael Howell
The Bitter Root Irrigation District (BRID) is asking its 1,440 irrigators to pony up for some much needed repairs to the irrigation infrastructure that delivers water from Lake Como to about 16,665 irrigated acres in the valley below. The project includes replacing a portion of the large century-old pipe that crosses beneath Highway 93 and the railroad tracks and rests on the equally-aged support bridge that crosses over the Bitterroot River about 12 miles south of Hamilton.
The cost of the entire project has been estimated at $2.5 million. After grants from the state’s Renewable Resource Grant and Loan Program (RRGL) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the balance of $1,773,976 would be paid with a 30-year loan to BRID from RRGL at an interest rate of 4%. The cost to water users on the system would be $3.50 per irrigated acre per year, which has already been assessed on their 2016 taxes. Montana statutes require BRID to obtain approval from the users before incurring the indebtedness. If the water users do not approve the loan, the $3.50 per acre increase already on the tax bills for 2016 will be put into the catastrophic fund for future projects.
The vote will be conducted by the Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder and irrigators wanting to vote on the loan must be registered voters. Ballots will be mailed out on November 18, 2015. The ballot requires a simple “yes” or “no” vote on the infrastructure project and will be due back to the county by December 8, 2015. Although only casting a yea or nay vote, each irrigator who votes will be awarded one vote for each acre being irrigated.
The BRID commission has held two public meetings to explain the need and the extent of the reconstruction process. According to BRID Manager John Crowley, the pipeline serving the BRID Ditch is 5,600 feet long from inlet to outlet and conveys 156,800 gallons per minute at a pressure of 115 pounds per square inch. He said it has lots of leaks and the ditch company has historically done the repairs on the line. But the upgrades necessary on the stretch under the highway and railroad tracks and on the bridge crossing over the river are beyond their abilities.
The 475 foot long bridge failed once before, in 1974, due to scouring of the pier situated on the west bank of the river. That repair cost $276,000. In 1979, a steep section of the pipeline failed along Lick Creek. That repair cost $60,000. In 1990, following an extensive examination of the system by an engineering company, a recommendation was made to do staged replacement of the line. Phase I of the project was completed in 2010, which included repair of 950 feet of the line at a cost of $1.4 million. 71% of the cost was covered by grants. Phase II was completed in 2013 at a cost of $1 million, with 81% covered by grants. Replacement of four expansion joints was done in 2014 at a cost of $84,000.
According to Matt Barnes of Morrison-Maierle Engineering, the company contracted to do the repairs, many alternatives were examined, including going under the river, before settling on the steel pony truss bridge design that would completely span the river.
Crowley said eliminating the central pier situated in the river would eliminate the major threat to the bridge which is the accumulation of debris that creates scouring under the bridge pier and, if the river shifted course, could send flood waters crashing into the pier on the east bank as well.
“This can has been kicked down the road for a long time,” said Crowley. He praised the current BRID commissioners for stepping up to the plate to address the problem.
Anyone with questions about the project or the upcoming vote may call the BRID office at 961-1182.