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Irrigation districts grapple with fee increase

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Last week, the Flathead Irrigation District paid $192,250 for their half of the payment for the 2019 Flathead Indian Irrigation Project operation and maintenance costs with a $4.50 increase or $33.50 per acre or $16.50 for half an acre.  

The Mission and Jocko Districts paid their half of the fee at $29.00 an acre or $14.50 for half an acre without the increase as a protest to the increased fee. The $4.50 increase adds $544,500 to the bill for all three districts. 

In July 2018, all three districts made assessments to Lake, Sanders and Missoula counties for $29.00 per acre and refused the $4.50 increase. The Mission and Jocko Districts also made a request for an audit of the FIIP from 2010 to 2018. Letters were sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Interior and our Congressional team in Washington, D.C. 

An audit hasn’t been done since 2009. We asked for a stay on the $4.50 increase until we get results from the audit. The BIA, of course, does not favor an audit. The Flathead District paying full BIA assessments does not help irrigators.

Remember, in repayment contracts with the United States of America irrigators would be able to operate the FIIP when construction costs were paid. We achieved this in 2010 with the formation of the Cooperative Management Entity. The CME ran FIIP with 41 employees for four years. In that time, a 1,000 miles of canal were cleaned and reshaped, hundreds of miles of brush and trees were removed from canal banks including 64 truckloads of logs from the Pablo feeder alone, hundreds of structures were replaced, camps were cleaned and 1,200 miles of space along the canals were sprayed. Folks this was done on $26 per acre.

The BIA’s problem is labor cost, always will be, and hiring is the other issue. It takes three months to hire employees. Back in the 1980s, the districts hired 15 employees to staff the FIIP. Today, labor costs for the BIA are over 75 percent of the budget. The CME had labor costs at least 10 percent lower. 

The BIA has had as few as 34 employees. Last year, they had 38 employees, and irrigators are being assessed and paying for 45 employees. My question: where did all the excess funds to the BIA go? Remember, an additional $363,000 was given to the BIA last year for staffing. Ten brand new pickups showed up last year, paid for with excess funds. And don’t forget about the $2,500,000 from the CME accounts sent to the BIA in 2014. Irrigation water cost is $4,053,500 for 2,500 irrigators. Irrigators should also keep in mind that the Greenfields Irrigation District near Great Falls pays $22 per acre for two feet an acre. 


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