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USACE set to complete Lower Yellowstone irrigation, fish bypass project on schedule

Omaha District
Published Oct. 1, 2021
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Yellowstone River fish bypass channel near Glendive, Mont. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Wilson)

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Weir construction phase one on the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Mont. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Wilson)

The Omaha District’s Lower Yellowstone irrigation project in south eastern Montana is on budget and on schedule at approximately 85 percent completion.  This civil works construction project began in early 2019 after the Bureau of Reclamation reached out to the District to replace an existing, outdated diversion dam.

District personnel from the Missouri River Resident Office and Montana Project Office have been managing and providing oversight for this project located on a remote 175 acres site along the Yellowstone River near Glendive. The affected irrigation area impacts 58,000 acres in eastern Montana and portions of North Dakota.   

“River flows are always a concern with projects like this,” said Tom Westenburg, Resident Engineer, Contracting Officer Representative, Omaha District, Bismarck, North Dakota. “Fortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of high flows over the last couple years during the construction season. Typically, we’re not able to get into the river and begin any work until July 1st.”   

Westenburg said that the project presents some unique challenges due to weather, regulations, and the remote location.  

“The in-water work restrictions due to the paddle fish sturgeon spawning season limits the actual construction period, so we need to pay close attention and make sure that everyone is using their time efficiently,” said Westenburg. “Also, getting out of the water before the winter sets in and the river freezes is also a major challenge for us.”

The main project features include a new submerged concrete weir and a two-mile-long fish bypass channel. The new weir is approximately 720 feet long and will replace an existing wood and rock weir that was constructed in 1908 during the Roosevelt administration.

According to Kevin Wilson, construction manager, Montana Project Office, the new weir will incorporate a 130-foot lower section that is referred to as a “fish notch” so that fish spawning and passage through the weir structure may occur. In addition to improving the wildlife habitat, the new weir will also ensure that the river is maintained at a sufficient level for the operation of a canal intake during seasonal low flows. The canal intake is operated and managed by the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District who is responsible for supplying critical irrigation water to the many farms and ranches located in the eastern Montana and western North Dakota regions.

Wilson is boots on the ground and works closely with the Bureau of Reclamation’s inspection representative to monitor progress, ensure project quality and that everything is proceeding according to plans and specifications.

“I sometimes wear different hats in order to be as flexible as possible; the ultimate goal is to provide the customer with a high-quality product,” said Wilson. He added that the project is on schedule to complete by the fall of next year and that he takes great pride in the Yellowstone mission.

The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project is part of the District’s Missouri River Recovery Program and is a follow-on effort to work which started in 2012 when a headworks intake was replaced.

“There are multiple benefits to this project,” said Jeremy Szynskie, project manager, civil works, Omaha District. “The operations and maintenance of this weir was an annual occurrence –riprap had to be placed in the river every year.  This new concrete structure will greatly reduce the maintenance requirement. In addition, we removed a major impediment for an endangered species, the pallid sturgeon.”

Some of the material for this project was challenging to source. Rock had to be quarried and brought in from over 400 miles away. In addition, last year due to COVID we had some challenges getting our employees into that area, added Szynskie.

Fishing is important to the economy of Glendive and surrounding areas. The District was able to work closely with the Bureau of Reclamation and the contractor to balance construction activities without negatively impacting the paddle fish season. 

Construction on the north side of the intake weir is expected to be completed later this year and the project finished by September 2022.