Tour highlights conservation projects at Buffalo Rapids

By Kay Braddock

  Innovative and cooperative – those were the prevailing comments repeated during last week’s tour of Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District II, as state and local officials and area producers praised the behind the scenes work occurring between the district, landowners and state and federal agencies on many of the ongoing projects. 

“My hats off to Buffalo Rapids for taking a progressive stance on this and trying to get ahead, not only for pallid (sturgeon) but for the ecosystem health in general,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Yellowstone River Coordinator George Jordan said after viewing two 38-foot long and 10-foot wide fish screens. 
The fish screen stop was the first among three visits on the two-hour tour hosted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, which also included two other stops – one along Terry’s main canal explaining the district’s nearly completed canal automation project and the final stop at a center pivot project west of Terry.
Yet to be installed, viewing the fish screens may have been the most popular stop – or at least the most controversial along the tour.
The fish screens arrived earlier this spring and have raised more than one set of eyebrows as they lay in the BR shop yard, which is located in the northeast corner outside of Terry.
Each fish screen weighs nearly 14-tons – about 11-tons heavier than BR officials were expecting.
“It’s a real good idea. I think it’s a very good plan,” BR District II Board of Control Commissioner Barry Rakes said of the pilot fish screen project, adding, “I was just a little overwhelmed when they showed up.”
It took two cranes to unload the fish screens, according to Rakes and will require a 75,000-pound crane to install the screens at the Shirley pumping plant – the furthest upstream plant in the district.
“We have all the structural work done out there to set them in,” Rakes said, pointing out the sub-frame has been built and the electrical upgrade to the plant completed.
The next hurdle for BR District II will be establishing a stable 25-foot base for a crane to sit on while installing the fish screens. 
The Bureau of Reclamation is currently working on engineering a platform that will include building a retaining wall or driving steel pilings, according to BR Project Manager Ray Strasheim.
“We would have liked to put them in this year, but we have to do something down there to accommodate a crane to set them on,” Strasheim said in a later interview. “That’s not going to happen overnight.”
BR District II officials are estimating crane costs to be about $5,000 a year to install the screens in the spring and remove them in the fall. 
A June 2011 extension date on the project has been approved by the NRCS. 
The pilot project is funded through state and federal agencies, with nearly $195,000 from the NRCS WHIP program, $56,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and $100,000 from the Renewable Grant Resource program of the Montana DNRC. 
It’s the first of its kind in the state.
The fish screen project is two-fold. It is expected to protect endangered species such as the pallid sturgeon as well as reducing the amount of algae clogging BR pumps. Expected to replace existing trash racks, which at times during heavy moss seasons requires constant maintenance, each fish screen rotates about 10-feet per minute. Using two spray bars, fish and debris are pushed into separate slough troughs and eventually moved into one trough, which carries the fish and debris further downstream away from the pumping station. 
“They may not be too big at all,” Jerry Nypen, manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project said at the conclusion of the fish screen stop. “These things have to be durable as heck. They’ve got to work five months continuously, no interruption. When I see stuff like this I say, ‘Wow, it’s for your good.’ Even though you’ve got to figure a way to get them in and out.”
The final stop of the tour highlighted a center pivot project partially funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus package passed by Congress last year.
It was one of seven projects along the Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project – which is now split and working as two distinct irrigation districts – that was approved for federal stimulus funds. 
“They were looking for shovel-ready projects,” NRCS Assistant State Conservationist David Pratt said. “We’ve always had shovel-ready projects through the EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).” 
Buffalo Rapids’ small watershed designation helped ensure funding for those projects located in Dawson, Prairie and Custer counties and included one side roll irrigation project, two gated pipe projects, three center pivots and one buried pipeline. Although the buried pipeline project was later canceled due to eligibility issues, the remaining six are near completion, according to District Conservationist Dick Scheetz.
About $281,000 from the stimulus package was allocated to the area projects, at a 50-50 cost-share with producers, which freed up funds that could be used on rangeland contracts, Scheetz said.
The purpose of the projects was to conserve water, improve crop productivity and stimulate the economy, Scheetz said.
The center pivot west of Terry located on farmland owned by Steve Tibbetts is 2,268 feet long. 
Although Scheetz wasn’t a proponent of sprinklers for this area’s dry and windy climate being “convinced no water hit the ground,” now with drop hoses which allow sprinkling just three feet above crops, Scheetz points out the benefits of water conservation and crop productivity when using center pivots. 
Flood irrigation provides 45 to 50 percent of water available to the plant while new sprinklers like center pivots provide up to 90 percent.
“We can provide the water more at the amount and time the plant needs it,” Scheetz said.
Although economic growth may not have been seen extensively through the projects locally, Scheetz pointed out installation crews were hired for each project. Steel pipes used were manufactured in the U.S. as well.
Strasheim, who recently began work as BR’s project manager, replacing longtime manager David Schwarz continues to point to his predecessor for many of the improvements made to Buffalo Rapids.
“He just took the initiative to do it,” Strasheim said of BR’s small watershed classification, which helped open doors to more grant funding. “He had a lot of credibility with a lot of different people in the state.”
“Like the fish screens, he’s the one that started it, the canal automation, he started it. If it wouldn’t have been for him neither one of those projects probably would have happened.”
During the tour Rakes expressed similar sentiments about recent upgrades to the project.
“I can see all good things come out of this. What we’ve done here in the last 10 years at Buffalo Rapids has been amazing,” Rakes said. “We went from ditches to gated pipe to sprinklers. We have a pretty efficient system. We’ve saved a lot of water.”

Published June 23, 2010

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