Irrigation takes stage in water rights negotiations
RONAN — To say the current water rights negotiation is an emotionally-charged issue in the Valley may be an understatement.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation the past month-and-half,” said water rights compact commission member and irrigator Dan Salomon. “The number one thing we’re trying to do as a commission is protect all existing uses.”
According to Salomon, the Flathead Joint Board of Control for the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project is tasked with negotiating a water rights agreement for the irrigation project between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes and the federal government. Once approved by the Flathead Joint Board of Control, it will be folded into the compact draft along with several other aspects of the water rights negotiations. This will begin a second negotiation process between the CSKT, the federal government and the RWRCC on the document as a whole. Once agreed upon, a public comment period will begin regarding the entire document before the commission votes on whether or not to approve it. If approved, the document will go before Montana’s legislature.
Advisor to the Cooperative Management Entity board Alan Mikkelsen said the irrigation portion of the water rights agreement, an extensive and complicated process, is designed to determine the farm turnout allowances that farms can depend on in wet, normal and dry years, while making sure these guarantees are delivered each and every year. If all goes according to plan, Mikkelsen said he expects little-to-no-change in the day-to-day irrigation operations throughout the valley. If anything, he expects them to become more efficient.
Even so, some local irrigators are concerned with the water allowances they’ve been shown.
Valley resident and potato farmer Susan Lake is concerned with the water quota amount for her potato farm, but stressed that all parties came to the negotiating table engaged and committed; willing to give and take.
“I hope everyone’s concerns are met, and at the end of the day I hope the process works,” she said.
Former chairman for the FJBC and irrigator Everitt Foust lives on the west side of Ronan and says that while a lot of storms blow over his property, lands closer to the mountains often get more rainfall.
“There’s things I like about it and there’s lots of things I have questions about,” Foust said. “We’ve very concerned about losing a lot of the quotas we have.”
Understanding the tension and worry, Mickelson said, “There are a lot of concerned people out there and we’re trying to address those concerns.”
In order to address these concerns, Mickelson and the FJBC put together a presentation designed to educate the public on a great deal of technical information which lead to the development of these farm turnout allowances. This data will include crop consumption figures and irrigation requirements and will be presented at the Ronan Middle School Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Aug. 20.
“It’s such an excellent presentation,” Lake said. “I think it will give everyone a better perspective as to what’s going on.”
Mickelson said the tribes hope to invest $60 to $80 million of their recently won settlement money into the irrigation project.
“Without an investment of that magnitude, this irrigation project will suffer from systemic failure in the next 30 years; it’s not in good shape,” he said.
“The tribes are not trying to drive out or discourage irrigation. By all accounts the management has improved vastly over what the federal management was doing. Hopefully this investment is seen as an indication that the tribes are working towards a better future for all,” Mickelson said.