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Interest grows in ND canal water for irrigation

The McClusky Canal flows in the foreground with the wider expanse of Lake Audubon in the distance. The canal is gravity fed through headworks at the eastern end of the Lake Audubon and supplies an increasing number of irrigators, who are drawn to the project by the surety of long-term water supply contracts. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune

Duane DeKrey, who directs the Garrison Diversion Unit, is becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that it's only now that the full promise of the McClusky Canal project is being realized as agricultural producers are being allowed to tap into its potential.

The canal was built in the late '60s and early '70s with federal funds as a compromise to provide irrigation for up to 1 million acres to make up for the acreage flooded by construction of Garrison Dam, the structure that impounds the Missouri River and created both lakes.

The original grandiose scheme of the canal was whittled way back over two decades of political wrangling until finally 74 miles of the canal were constructed. Because of objections from Canada, the canal was later plugged at mile marker 58 — the drainage divide — to prevent the mixing of waters into water that flows across the border.

While that still left miles of canal filled with the best water around and the potential to irrigate 51,700 suitable acres, there was little interest in using the water for irrigation because the federal Bureau of Reclamation's policies only provided for very short-term water-use contracts.

DeKrey said it wasn't until 2011 that the bureau conceded water permit authority to the diversion unit, along with the State Water Commission, opening the door to 40-year water contracts.

Potential irrigators finally have the surety they need to go to the bank for financing and interest is picking up, DeKrey said.

Kip Kovar, Garrison Diversion Unit engineer, said he's taking phone calls weekly from producers who are interested in utilizing the canal water that's been so tantalizingly close all this time, especially this year.

"We see a lot more calls. With it being dry, the interest has been high," Kovar said.

He expects the diversion unit could expect to add another 500 to 1,000 irrigation acres a year going forward. The 100 cubic feet per second of water flowing through the canal now will have to be increased ten-fold to supply irrigation to all the 51,700 suitable acres, the Red River Valley water project and other draws for wildlife projects.

The Bismarck Tribune is a media partner with Forum News Service

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