Bitterroot Irrigation District repairs, replaces century-old pipes


DARBY, Mont. - Agricultural water users in Ravalli County's longest irrigation district should have more water next summer.

Through a $100,000 state grant, the Bitterroot Irrigation district is repairing a section of century-old pipe north of Darby. It's part of an ongoing project to improve a siphon near Lake Como on the valley's west side to the Big Ditch, east of the Bitterroot River.

The pipe was part of an an engineering marvel that transformed the Bitterroot's east side from dry land to irrigated farms and orchards. Water is siphoned from a canal out of Lake Como across the Bitterroot River to the Big Ditch. The old pipes are riddled with holes.

"They leaked," said BRID manager John Crowley, "We were losing a lot of water during the course of an irrigation season."

Crowley has overseen siphon repairs in phases every few years.

There is brand new infrastructure on Lick Creek Hill. The improvements extend to the flat ground bordering highway 93.

Now, crews are repairing or replacing sections of old pipe that is buried east of the river. The pipes, called expansion joints, have patches on patches.

"I've got my initials in there," said BRID foreman, Larry Neel, "I've done a lot of welding in the pipe and I've got my initials in there."

The new repairs should last a long time. Welders weld new steel straps onto the old joints.

"The pipe being 100 years old," said welder Sam Bruno, "it's actually better steel than the steel that we're getting now, so trying to maximize our efficiency we've had to find a wire that is going to be good for the existing pipe and the new pipe.

Crews repaired three of the four expansion joints. A fourth was replaced altogether with a very high tech expansion joint. The changes should reduce chances of leaks giving way to breaks and flooding. It could extend the irrigation season by a couple days.

"It all adds up," said Crowley.

Eventually BRID would like to replace the siphon over the Bitterroot River.

Darby landowner Carl Fox irrigates from BRID. He said it's all good for the irrigators, as well as the aquifer.

"It's good for people's wells," said Fox. "And it keeps the valley green."