U.S. Sen. Steve Daines met with a group of Sidney farmers and ranchers, irrigation district experts, county officials and supporters near the banks of the Yellowstone River on October 14.
Sen. Daines, popular among Richland County Republicans, is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate against Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat whose presence was felt at the Yellowstone River event.
Everyone was wearing facemasks as a precaution against COVID-19, and the temperature was frigid as a Pacific Northwest cold front began moving into eastern Montana.
Despite the cold temperatures, less-than-popular facemasks and biting wind, Sen. Daines was all smiles by the end of his brief presentation.
After standing for obligatory photos, the freshman senator nibbled on a frozen ice-cream bar while fielding questions and accepting kudos from local farmers and ranchers. They were eager to express their gratitude toward the senator for fast-tracking a bill to keep intact a 75-year-old power contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Sen. Daines, along with Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, stepped up to assist Sidney land owners, farmers and other water users by joining with various Washington D.C. lawmakers and preventing the power contract from expiring.
The federal legislation behind Daines’ and Gianforte’s efforts is lengthy and complex. In short, it saved Sidney and Kinsey water users a lot of money.
During a 15-minute impromptu speech, Sen. Daines assured everyone at the event the law would be signed by President Donald Trump within the next 10 days.
Raymond Bell, president of Sidney Water Users Irrigation District (SWUID), estimated the bill will save locals from facing a 100 percent increase on their water-use bills.
The group contacted Rep. Gianforte and Sen. Daines after receiving a letter from the Bureau of Reclamation informing the SWUID it would not be renewing the 75-year-old power contract.
“This affects the livelihood of 45 families supported on our district of around 5000 acres,” Bell wrote in a letter dated Oct. 2, 2020. “Without affordable pumping power we could have been forced to shut down our Irrigation District.”
Rep. Gianforte, locked in a tight race for governor of Montana against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, worked with Sen. Daines to introduce legislation that guarantees renewal of the contract.
As the the Bureau of Reclamation explained to SWUID, it would literally take an act of Congress to renew the 75-year agreement, which helped guarantee affordable water to area farmers since the mid-1940s.
“This critical legislation ensures many family farms in Eastern Montana have access to reliable irrigation, and I look forward to President Trump signing it into law,” Rep. Gianforte stated in a press release. “Agriculture is Montana’s top industry, and I’ll continue working hard to protect it.”
Sen. Daines, dressed in casual blue jeans and brown cowboy boots, addressed the group. They gathered above the banks of the Yellowstone River — a stone’s throw from MT-23 and just across the bridge — to greet the senator and listen to him.
“We got it done,” Sen. Daines said, informing the group he had just finished discussing the legislation (Senate Bill 3758) with President Trump on the drive into Richland County from western Montana. “We got it through without any fireworks.”
Sen. Daines explained the effort to renew the contract with the Bureau of Reclamation was fast-tracked by attaching it as an amendment to legislation Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) introduced on a similar project in his state.
“Thank you for helping us out and for being patient,” Sen. Daines said to the Sidney folks. “All we’re asking for is to help farmers out. Keep it the way it’s always been.
“Had to reach across the aisle to Greg Walden,” the U.S. senator said, pointing out that sometimes the most effective way to pass legislation in Washington, D.C. is to work with fellow lawmakers spearheading similar legislation.
After noting his phone conversation with President Trump, Sen. Daines reassured the group the bill will be signed into law.
“I don’t anticipate any problem,” he said. “Congratulations to you. The last thing you need is a big [rate] increase.”
One member of the group spoke up: “It means a lot to us.”
This triggered a more philosophical statement from the Republican lawmaker.
“If you think about the genius of our founding fathers, who had the foresight to give Montana two senators,” Daines said, alluding to the fact that California — with nearly 40 million residents — has the same number of U.S. senators as the Treasure State. “Anytime you achieve a result for the people you represent, that’s real rewarding.”
After his brief speech, Sen. Daines was a bit more political.
“It’s another good win for our farmers,” he said. “Richland County’s gonna offset some of those votes in the leftist part of the state.”