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Proposed irrigation agreement won’t hold water

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The Flathead Joint Board of Control has voted to recommend that irrigators vote in favor of the negotiated Water Use Agreement. It also authorized the expenditure of more than $30,000 to “educate” irrigators and poll their support, or lack thereof, for the WUA.

As three of the four FJBC commissioners who voted against recommending that irrigators vote in favor of the WUA, we would like to share some of the reasons for our opposition to this document.

 

Water

This agreement negotiates away a vast quantity of water that is today available for use by irrigators. This is already a deficit irrigation project; we cannot afford to give up water. Additionally, it is doubtful whether improved efficiency and increased pumping will adequately replace this surrendered water. The quantity of water allowed for in the agreement could preclude irrigators from diversifying their operations with different crops or being able to adapt to changes in demand for certain crops. It could further preclude irrigators from adapting to further advances and development of crop species and from adapting to climate change.

In-stream flows are increased dramatically, even though the minimum in-stream flow levels of the past 25 years have proven to adequately protect fish.

Minimum pool elevations in most project reservoirs are increased, thus making less water available for irrigation.

 

The water right

Irrigators have been told repeatedly that an agreement wherein the holder of the water right allows us to use some of the water is just as good as owning the water right ourselves. We strongly disagree.

 

Existing uses

Irrigators have heard throughout the negotiation process that “all existing uses” of water would be protected. This agreement does not protect all existing uses, and instead in many instances erases decades of historic use. For example:

Flood irrigation: this is almost certainly a thing of the past under this agreement. Even if land is well suited for flood irrigation and sprinkler irrigation is not practical, in many cases the agreement does not allow for a sufficient quantity of water to continue flood irrigation even where there is adequate water today.

Non-quota water: there is no such classification in the agreement. Even if streams are at flood stage and overflowing their banks, an irrigator cannot use any of the water without it counting against his quota for the year.

Extra duty land: Water will no longer be delivered according to the duty system. Though the agreement has some provision to receive water above the annual FTA, it is capped at 2.0 acre-feet and has onerous requirements. Additionally, the burden of proof is on the irrigator to demonstrate usage, regardless of his historic “existing” use.

 

Control

This agreement surrenders significant control of the project to entities in which most irrigators have no voice, no vote and little recourse.

 

Efficiency

In the Nov. 28 Valley Journal, a St. Ignatius irrigator wrote that, “Most of the irrigators start irrigating when soil moisture gets low and then stop when the water goes off in September, never questioning or measuring the amount of water they use.” We take strong exception to this statement and believe that irrigators are, by and large, quite efficient in their use of water. Many irrigators have improved their efficiency on their own and at their own cost by converting from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation where practical, or from sprinkler to pivot. There is always room for improved efficiency and it should be pursued, but only as individual irrigators can afford. Forced efficiency is not efficient.

 

The process

As Sen. Verdell Jackson recently stated, “The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission was established by the legislature for the specific purpose of, ‘quantification, or the determination of the size of a federal reserved water right for the state adjudication process.’ In other words, how much water does the federal reservation occupied by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes need to fulfill the specific purposes of that reservation? The product of the water compact commission is now described in 1,100 pages of legal documents, maps and abstracts that fail to answer that fundamental question. The commission has gone well beyond their authority and negotiated a settlement that will place non-Indian people under tribal jurisdiction, separate water rights from private property, and give senior water rights to all of Western Montana’s major lakes and rivers to the tribes. In short, this compact will negatively impact the property rights and values of all of Western Montana.”

Though negotiations have been ongoing for the past several years, the real nuts and bolts of this agreement have only been dealt with and publicly available for several months. This agreement has seen bitter contention since it was first presented to the irrigators. The inexact science upon which it is based has been called into question. Many irrigators tell us they still do not understand the document or its implications and feel like they are being rushed into making a decision that will affect them and their descendents forever. Many more tell us they do understand it and do not like what it contains.

There is already legislation to extend the compact process to allow the parties to negotiate further. This agreement, and the subsequent compact, will control water use on the reservation forever. We had better be certain we have it right.

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