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Irrigation fees set to increase next year

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LAKE COUNTY – The cost of farming within the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project could increase in the coming year if irrigation taxes go up as planned.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages the project for the United States government and has increased the operation and maintenance fees to $33.50 per acre for 2019, which is an increase of $4.50. Swenson said the Mission and Jocko District voted not to approve the BIA’s increase.

“That is a very high increase,” said Mission District Chairman Ray Swenson. “I think that is the highest rate in the country.”

Swenson said irrigators operating farms are already struggling in Lake County. “The cattle market is a little better this year, but commodity prices are not great,” he said. “Agriculture is struggling and no one has any extra money.”

As of Monday morning, the Flathead District hadn’t voted on the issue. Flathead District member Janette Rosman said she is concerned about what will happen if one district approves the increase and the other two don’t.

She said it’s a real possibility that the BIA could decide to turn off irrigation water if the taxes are not paid. However, she said the increase is too high. “It’s a terrible increase and a hardship for ranchers,” she said. 

In 2017, the fee was at $26 per acre. The districts agreed to a $3 increase, and the fees went up to the current $29. The BIA originally wanted to increase the fees by $7.50 back in 2017 but agreed to increase those fees in two increments. The process of implementing the second increase is now occurring. The operation and maintenance fees are collected through taxes and used to pay the BIA for water use within the project.  

Rosman said the fee increase is too much for irrigators, but she understands the other side of the issue. She said the BIA wants to increase the fees because the project has many deferred maintenance issues in desperate need of repairs. 

Swenson said the BIA should use the $2 million it has from irrigation taxes collected from the Cooperative Management Entity from 2010 to 2013. He said the BIA is using the funds as a reserve for the project. Swenson added that he would have liked the Mission and Jocko Districts to have more communication with the BIA concerning the increase in fees. 

The Indian Affairs Bureau through the United States government addressed some of the issues concerning irrigation in a notice released in 2017. It was noted that the BIA is required to establish irrigation assessment rates that recover the costs to administer, operate, maintain and rehabilitate irrigation projects. “As owner of the FIIP, it is BIA’s responsibility to ensure adequate resources are made available to meet (those) requirements.”

The document continues by saying the BIA’s authority to assess rates for irrigation projects across the United States dates back to the Act of May 29, 1908 and is addressed in the regulations. “The authority to assess rates rests solely with Interior and has not been delegated to the irrigation districts.”

They note that it is “imperative” that the project has adequate levels of staffing, the ability to purchase supplies and materials, implement an invasive weed control program, maintain equipment, and have an adequate emergency reserve fund.

In response to agricultural hardships, the document states that the government “tempered irrigation rate increases to demonstrate a sensitivity to the economic impact to water users, but that past practice resulted in a rate deficiency at some irrigation projects and the BIA does not have discretionary funds to subsidize irrigation projects. Therefore, funding to operate and maintain these projects needs to come from revenues from the water users served by those projects.”     

In other irrigation news, Swenson said the Jocko and Mission Districts have requested an election referendum for irrigators to vote on whether the two districts should be able to operate together to make operations and conducting meetings an easier process. He said the election could be held as early as October or sometime next year.     

Mission and Jocko District meetings are on the second Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. in the former FJBC office in St. Ignatius. The Flathead District holds their meetings on the second Monday of each month at 1 p.m. in Ronan. 

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