Proposed irrigation agreement would change face of local agriculture
The irrigators on the Flathead Irrigation Project need to realize that if the proposed irrigation water use agreement is approved as written, it will not be “business as usual” with regard to irrigation water delivery and will have dire implications for agriculture in the Mission Valley.
Presently, 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. If they measured their water as I do, they would most likely realize they are using more water than their allocation. This will not be the case under the proposed agreement. Water will be metered, and you will get your metered allocation and no more. That’s why it is so important to properly quantify your water allocation with a water right.
Additionally, irrigators will not hold a water right that is appurtenant to their land. Your water right will be a part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ reserved water right, and irrigators will receive something called a “right to receive water,” a newly formed creature of this compact.
In the recently published draft of the proposed water rights compact, we irrigators have heard how our proposed irrigation water allocations will be reduced because the irrigation project has been modeled, in a computer, from the water sources through to the plants, and the model says we are using less water that we think. In my 35 years as an engineer, I have never seen anyone accept analytic model data as valid without empirical measurements to validate the model results. And we are supposed to take the model output as absolutely correct numbers? How can this be justified?
I have used plant transpiration data from the AgriMet station at the St. Ignatius Airport to plan my irrigation schedule for 2012, and it indicated a requirement of 20.2-24.2 inches of water. I applied about 25.2 inches of water from July 2 to Sept. 16. Our largest water delivery under this proposed agreement would be 13.7 inches (1.14 acre feet per acre). That’s a deficit of 6.5 to 10.5 inches of delivered water based on plant transpiration.
What are we to do when we have such a major disconnect? I made a proposal to the joint board on July 15 to hold to existing water deliveries and validate the on-farm usage via on-farm flow measurements monitored by agronomists. This would be relatively easy to do. This measured usage would be the basis of our individual water rights. To date, I have received no response to my proposal.
A keystone of this proposed agreement was supposed to be the protection of existing uses. As a “double duty” irrigator, I see no protection for my historic use of irrigation water. In fact, my proposed allocation, as demonstrated in my example above, will be well below my historic use. If these allocations are approved, we will have to revamp what we can do on our ranch, and we will take a big hit in our property values. And I am by no means unique in this regard. All irrigators are in the same boat.
Water rights disputes will be settled by another new creature called the Unitary Management Board, instead of the Montana Water Court. And while we, as taxpayers, pay for the Montana Water Court, guess who will also have to pay for the Unitary Management Board? What is so unique in our situation that we need an additional administrative body to deal with water rights in this project?
Irrigators probably thought the Flathead Joint Board of Control was representing their interests in these negotiations. The FJBC entered these negotiations without knowing the total amount of water the irrigation project distributes, so how could they even begin to negotiate a meaningful agreement for the irrigators they are supposed to represent?
What can you do? Carefully study the proposed compact. Second, get active in changing a bad agreement into a good one. Attend the FJBC meetings and ask questions; let them know how you feel. Talk to your irrigation district commissioners and let them know how you feel. Talk to your neighbors and make sure they are aware of this poorly crafted series of proposals.
(Editor’s note: Jerry Laskody is a St. Ignatius-area rancher and irrigator and is retired from a 35-year engineering career.)