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Irrigation commissioners concerned about water delivery

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ST. IGNATIUS – Irrigation commissioners said last week that a lack of drought management plan and adequate staffing at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is exacerbating water delivery to Flathead Indian Irrigation Project irrigators. 

According to commissioners, individual ditchriders appear to be creating their own plans for limiting water usage to irrigators in each water usage area, instead of upper management instituting uniform plans for shared shortage. 

In Flathead Commissioner Dick Erb’s Moiese area, water users are on an eight day rotation between who gets water and who does not. 

But in Flathead Commissioner Shane Orien’s area, water users are allotted one water line per 40 acres on a rotational basis. Orien was unhappy some irrigators are getting more water, for apparently no reason other than favoritism. 

“Unless you are certain operators then you can run two lines per 40,” Orien said. “I talked to one irrigator yesterday and he’s talking about sacrificing one field to save the other.” 

Orien was also unhappy that a talk with project management revealed only two of the three pumps available to pull water from the Flathead River are currently operational. 

“I asked if that was the same pump that was broken down last year and he said yes,” Orien said. “So that pump has been sitting in pieces since last year.” 

The commissioners say not enough was done to store water in reservoirs earlier in the year, and that they would have liked to have seen better water management earlier in the season.

“You could look out on the horizon and see we were going to have drought this year,” Commissioner Ted Hein said. “It became easy to recognize in mid-February … the project has to have a plan.” 

BIA Project Manager Pete Plant was not available for comment during the meeting. He did not return calls from the Valley Journal. 

Irrigation commissioners say reports from ditchriders indicate water to irrigators could be shut off mid-July to the beginning of August, depending on geographic area. 

There is little the irrigation commissioners can do about the delivery problems, because the project has been under control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs since 2014. The BIA resumed operation after the Flathead Joint Board of Control dissolved amid political infighting over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact in early 2014, leading to the end of a Cooperative Management Entity between the board and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

A suit pending in Montana federal district court asks that the project be turned over to irrigator control, but there is little indication when a ruling on that case might be made. In the meantime, commissioners are asking people to write their delivery issues down in notebooks being passed around the community. The notebooks will be used to help build a case for the project’s turnover. 

“There have been literally hundreds of complaints of alleged mismanagement. Things are going wrong. It really becomes evident in a year this dry,” Commissioner Boone Cole said. “When it is raining people put up with a lot, when water is short they don’t. We have been documenting many, many cases of mismanagement that is exacerbating the situation.” 

Irrigators who have problems and would like to document them in the notebooks can call 406-745-2661 for more information. 

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