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News / Northwest

Montana canal pipe splits open, flooding area and threatening local farming industry

By Associated Press
Published: June 18, 2024, 1:04pm

BABB, Mont.— Montana state officials were scurrying Tuesday to stop flooding caused by the breakage of a century-old pipe used to deliver drinking water to 14,000 residents and carry irrigation water to farms.

No injuries or deaths have been reported since the pipe split open Monday, causing flooding in the rural area east of Glacier National Park near the U.S.-Canadian border. The gushing of water from the 90-inch diameter pipe caused some washouts 50 feetdeep, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The breach in the St. Mary Canal siphon, which serves 120,000 acresof irrigated land, happened one month before a $100 million replacement project was set to begin and during the peak irrigation season when demand for diverted water is at its highest. Local officials with the Milk River Project, the organization set to oversee the replacement project, labeled the breach a “catastrophic failure,” which could result in an economic disaster for north-central Montana.

The flooding already has caused property damage and road closures and could cause utility disruptions in the surrounding areas. Although the canal had been shut down before the failure, the hillside and a nearby bar, hotel and arena sustained significant damage, project leaders said.

Ryan Newman, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Montana area manager, said emergency response teams are assessing the damage and working to identify what caused the failure.

The agency’s 2023 study of the upcoming replacement project warned that such a failure would affect farmers through reduced crop production and could place a strain on local businesses and communities. The extent of the economic impact, which has yet to be determined, will depend on how long it takes crews to restore the flow of diversion water to local producers.