©2015 Montana Land and Water Alliance

Following up on our earlier post, Compact Implementation Watch, we bring you just a snapshot of the difficult reality on the ground in the Flathead Irrigation and Power Project (FIPP) during this drought summer of 2015.

In terms of the real shortage of water being experienced, and the thousands of acres with crops in the ground and without water right now, farmers are experiencing the combined danger of drought, the BIA’s complete incompetence, and preimplementation of the Compact. It is, as they say, “the perfect storm”.

Discerning the difference between each of the three causes of water shortage this year is at the heart of on-going and potential legal action: complaints turn into hard facts and data, including the already extensive economic damageNote: this is a “clear and present” reminder why the Compact’s immunity issue now before a court of law is so important.

Implementation of the Compact.

That the compact is already being implemented is not hard to discern from the facts of water on the ground today.  Compact implementation has already manifested itself in the BIA’s failure to capture early spring runoff in every major storage facility for the project.  This is essential to irrigation period, even politicians can understand that.

The reality is that while the irrigators were in Helena fighting for their lives in February, the BIA at the direction of the Tribes was letting the water go downstream when it could have been storing it.

And now, in the midst of a period in which stream flow in western Montana is running in the lowest 25th percentile (75% of all flows are above the current flow), the storage which would have saved farmers this year in the FIP is gone.  What water remains is given preferentially to compact proponents.    And consequent low flows in the Flathead River right now (7,820 cfs) are a direct result of the BIA/Tribes wasting the water in the winter and depriving the system of irrigation and return flow.

The failure to store water and let it go down stream is representative of what the Tribes’ compact instream flows are–at nearly flood stage the entire year.  As water flows drop in the streams and especially this year, the flows drop to or below the existing interim instream flows, thus no water can be diverted for agriculture.

The Compact  instream flows above the interim flows are not based on fisheries science but instead are based on the water savings that could be achieved by hypothetical conservation improvements to the irrigation project.  And they have been openly described by the Tribes as meeting a “robust river” standard, which has variable meanings to different people, that is there is no standard.

Here are some photos taken July 6, 2015.  They show the result of failing to store spring runoff and even in this ‘drought’ year, should probably be higher.

Mission Reservoir

Mission Reservoir  0706215



Tabor Reservoir 1 showing post markers 07062015

Jocko Lake

Black lake upside of dam 07062015


Crow Reservoir

Crow Dam and Reservoir 07062015


Pablo Reservoir

Pablo Reservoir 2


Timing is Everything

Given the storage situation at the beginning of the irrigation season, which was in deficit because of the failure to capture water in the spring, the timing of distribution of water is critical.  If you are slow to enter rotation, or ditch riders enforce selectively–and you have crops in the ground–it can be devastating in crop and labor costs at least.  A drought condition delivery plan is a must.

And, the timing of engaging other sources of water to which the FIPP is legally entitled is critical:  here that  source is the Flathead Pumps from the Flathead River, which are now attempting to deficit fill Pablo so they can turn on the non-compact supporters other irrigators served by the reservoir.

The Flathead pumps, river and the canal to Pablo Reservoir:

Flathead River looking north, pumps in foreground 07062015

Pablo Feeder from Flathead Pumps 07062015


Don’t let anyone tell you on “they’re not implementing the compact now”, because they are…the state, the BIA, and the tribe.  Implementation of the compact in the winter months exacerbated the extremely low stream flows during the spring and summer.

So yes, its now record low stream flow.  The FIP was built to move water around in situations like this, if it was managed properly and in time.  Starving the irrigators now has starved downstream flows in the Flathead, so the only thing left will be the Tribes’ instream flow.

The trouble is that recovering from a year like this will take some time, and repetition of this pattern now with or without the Compact–as demonstrated in 2015–is intended to begin the gradual demise of irrigation on private lands within the reservation.

In a nutshell, the compact implementation likely began this winter–of course over the last few years is has been gradually implemented–and not looking ahead, a drought year ensued and the shortened irrigation season and crop loss  is a result. Then incompetence and mismanagement took over, intertwined with apparent favoritism in water delivery across the project.

Those who live here warned their neighbors and the state about the consequences of this compact.  Proponents thought this would go away?  Not a chance, no matter what the outcome is of any ongoing litigation.   How much more property damage has to occur before everyone wakes up?