Letter to the Editor by Verdell Jackson, former MT Senator
The Flathead Irrigation Project on the CSKT Reservation was built by the Federal Government to make the reservation productive. Dry land farming was not sustainable without irrigation. The same situation exists in the Flathead.
For example, I grow grass hay for horses and irrigate out of the Flathead River. I irrigate half of the land that I farm one time and do one cutting. The land that I irrigated stayed green and produced half as much hay as last year because of the drought, while on the non-irrigated ground almost all of the grass turned brown and produced 20% of what it did last year and was much lower in quality. My hay did not pay the cost of the fertilizer and pumping cost. I operated at a loss.
I am now watching the farmers who irrigate their land several times during the summer and are now getting ready to start their 3rd cutting of alfalfa. They are not affected very much by the drought except their expenses are higher because of the cost of pumping more water. They will make less, but they will still make a profit.
Under the Compact, during a drought the irrigated land will look like the non-irrigated land this year. There will be no second and third cuttings. Look at the fields covered with short mostly brown grass and the short wheat that produced shrived grain and you will see the impact of the off reservation water rights of the CSKT Compact. None of the farmers including me who irrigate with surface water or wells connected to surface water will be able to irrigate even once because the compact binds the state of Montana to implement “calls” on water at the direction of the federal government/CSKT for instream flows, or on any water that could be connected to an instream flow.
The Federal Government or the CSKT will exercise their rights according to the minimum flows in the water abstracts in the Compact. Unlike Montana’s water management which is based on survival of fish, the Compact water abstracts are based on a robust river standard. The irrigators would be notified to stop using water. They would comply because they could not possibly pay the fines that would be levied if they ran their pumps, or they may call junior water users.
Irrigators within the CSKT reservation understand how the Compact will affect them because they were notified to stop using water during the middle of the summer. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) failed to store sufficient water for irrigation. Instead the BIA has already begun implementing the Compact and is using irrigation water for compact-level instream flows which are much higher than the existing instream flows.
It is tragedy that the CSKT Compact passed the Montana House by a mere 3 votes. (Note: there is an active lawsuit questioning the validity of that vote) The following Northwest Montana elected officials compromised our irrigation water rights and gave $53 million to the tribe: Ed Lieser, Zac Perry, Chas Vincent, Bruce Tutvedt, Dan Salomon, and Greg Hertz, along with the support of Attorney General Fox, and County Commissioners Cal Scott and Gary Krueger.
Former Kalispell Senator Verdell Jackson was in the Montana Legislator for 16 years.