State and farmers wrestle with solutions to fix Cataract Dam

Farmers and ranchers who irrigate out of north Willow Creek gathered Monday at the top of Cataract Dam a few miles west of Pony to talk with state officials about the future of the small dam that was built in 1958. The irrigators would like to see the dam work properly and are trying to work with state officials to develop a plan to fix it. Photo by Greg Lemon

Farmers and ranchers who irrigate out of north Willow Creek gathered Monday at the top of Cataract Dam a few miles west of Pony to talk with state officials about the future of the small dam that was built in 1958. The irrigators would like to see the dam work properly and are trying to work with state officials to develop a plan to fix it. Photo by Greg Lemon

PONY – Irrigators on north Willow Creek are hoping the state will finally fix a dam that hasn’t been very good at holding back water since it was built more than 50 years ago.
On Monday, water users along north Willow Creek, which flows out of the Tobacco Roots and through town, met at Cataract Dam to discuss the future of the small leaky dam with state engineers.
Cataract Dam is a small impoundment on Cataract Creek, which is a small tributary to north Willow Creek upstream from Pony.
The dam itself looks pretty insignificant, as far as dams go. It’s not very tall or wide, covered mostly of large granite boulders, with a simple outlet structure and spillway. But the irrigators down stream would like it to work like the state of Montana said it would when it was built in 1958, said Lezlie Kinne, water commissioner for the Willow Creek Storage Project.
Kinne oversees irrigation out of north Willow Creek. She helped organize the meeting Monday.
“The water users want (the state) to finish the project because it has never worked, never held water since the day the state put it in,” Kinne said.
To get to Cataract Reservoir, you only have to drive a few miles west of Pony. The steep and rough road traces its way up toward Hollow Top Mountain. The area is picturesque, full of springs, aspen stands and big granite outcroppings.
In the 1940s, junior water right holders in north Willow Creek needed more water in the late summer, so they decided to get the state to build a dam, Kinne said.
Water rights in Montana are complex, but the general rule is first in time, first in right. That means the oldest (or senior) water rights, get served first. During the wet times of the year, when there is enough water to go around, all water rights get served. But once the summer hits and the spring runoff is done, the junior water rights begin to lose out on water.
In many drainages around Montana, this problem was solved by dams, both small and large, private and public. Dams provided for the storage of spring runoff so that junior water right holders downstream could purchase water out of the dam to be delivered in July and August when they needed it the most.
As soon as Cataract Dam was complete, the water users knew it wasn’t working, Kinne said.
“After the first year they closed the gate and they noticed it wasn’t holding water like it should,” she said.
Problem was they had a signed contract with the state to pay for the dam, which cost $142,811.50 to build. The irrigators complained to the state and the state came back to try and use grout to fix the leaky dam. However, that didn’t work and eventually the state quit trying to get it fixed, Kinne said.
The contract has never been fulfilled. The water users have never paid for the construction costs on the dam and the state has never got it fixed. The contract has essentially sat in limbo, she said. The water users have paid for the operation and maintenance of the structure.
While the extent of the problems with the reservoir are not known, the general consensus is that the dam itself is fine, it’s the south side of the reservoir that is the problem.
On the north side, the dam butts up against a granite wall. But on the south side, its footing is a glacial moraine.
In general, moraines don’t hold water very well, said Kevin Smith, state water projects bureau chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The moraine has kept the reservoir from holding enough water to be useful, Kinne said.
In fact, it’s a problem that has cost the farmers with claims to the water quite a bit of money over the past 50 years, said Dave Maichel, a farmer in the area with water rights out of the creek.
According to Maichel’s calculations, just the loss in hay value over the past 50 years has been about $9.7 million.
The Fix
Engineers know that water is seeping through the moraine on the south side of the reservoir, Smith said. However, he is quick to say the seepage doesn’t create a safety issue.
Other than what he deemed a minor issue with the spillway, the dam is structurally sound.
Fixing the seepage problem all together will mean lining the reservoir, either with natural material, like clays and bentonite, or with a synthetic material, Smith told the water users at the Monday meeting on top of the dam.
The state has done a feasibility study on a range of options for addressing the dam. The most expensive fix would mean sealing the seepage problems and making the dam function like it was intended. This would cost more the $4 million, Smith said.
The other end of the spectrum would be to decommission the dam and essentially make it a pass through structure that wouldn’t hold water, he said.
Maichel was clear as to what the water users wanted.
“We as water users, from the very beginning, have never backed off this project,” he told Smith.
Kinne agreed.
“The water users have always pursued trying to get this to be a workable project,” she said.
Todd Brennan is a rancher in the area and also owner of a contracting company that works on projects like dam rehabilitation. He’s been trying to help the water users and the state figure out a solution to the problem.
One of the problems with the feasibility study the DNRC has put forth is the cost, Brennan said. The potential overrun for the project is slated at about 30 percent. The water users would like to zero in on the costs a little better.
“We just want to eliminate the variables,” Brennan told Smith.
One way to zero in on the costs of the project and avoid the unknowns is to do a little more research, Brennan said.
His company could drill holes around the reservoir to see if they could find out more about how water is seeping out of the impoundment. He could also help the state find local sources of lining material from overburden piles from old mines in the area.
To that end, the board of water users was able to get a $5,000 grant to help the DNRC fine tune the feasibility study, Kinne said.
Part of the fix is also going to depend on how much the irrigators are willing to pay for the water, Smith said.
“Another issue is to revisit what type of repayment capacity you’re willing to foot,” he said.
The reservoir would have about 1,000 acre feet of capacity and if it cost $4 million to fix the dam, that would mean the cost per acre-foot would be about $4,000, Smith said in an interview after the meeting at the dam.
That’s a pretty steep cost for water, he said.
What’s next?
From Kinne’s standpoint, the meeting on Monday was good, but may not have been particularly fruitful.
Smith told the water users at the meeting the state doesn’t have the money to do the work, but they are willing to do a little more investigation on the dam and local sources of lining material.
Typically, state water projects like this are paid for – either in part or in whole – by the water users. However, the state does have some money to spend on projects from the revenue it generates from its hydroelectric facility at Toston Dam, Smith said.
The problem is that with other dam projects around the state, that money is allocated for sometime into the future, he said.
The state could enter into a contract with the water users for the cost of fixing the dam, but they would have to prove the cost of the water wouldn’t be too expensive for their farming or ranching operations, Smith said.
Another option might be conveying the dam to the water users, he said.
The DNRC wants to find a solution that works for both the state and the irrigators, Smith said. The biggest problem right now is money.
For the water users, the biggest issue right now is the unknown cost of fixing the dam, Kinne said. The state says it will cost $4 million, give or take 30 percent, but that’s not a good enough answer.
“Why would we go ahead with the dam project if we don’t know the true costs or close to it,” she said. “We need to know whether it’s feasible to sink money into that dam. The water users are saying, do your homework first.”
The issue that led the irrigators – all those years ago – to want the dam is still there, even though some of the farms and ranches have been passed down two more generations. Junior water right holders are still not getting the water they need late in the summer, Kinne said.
“We’re not going to let the state let it go away,” Kinne said. “Those issues are still there and these people want to address this dam because it will resolve those issues.”

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