©2018 Montana Land and Water Alliance

We have been waiting for the moment when compact proponents would cross a line and fail in their relentless efforts to destroy the Flathead Irrigation Project. That point came last week when a judge, pursuant to a lawsuit funded by wealthy loudmouth compact proponents, dissolved the Flathead Joint Board of Control (FJBC).

The irony is these compact proponents sued to dissolve the FJBC with the intent of reforming it so that they could assert compact proponent control over the FJBC and force the CSKT Compact down their neighbors’ throat.

Well guess what?  The FJBC may not be reformed as the individual irrigation districts now see this as having been freed from the incompetent “leadership” of compact proponents, and those commissioners who just “want to get along” regardless of the  intended uncompensated and unconstitutional theft of property rights represented by and inherent in the CSKT Compact.

Make no mistake here: the wealthy, loudmouthed compact proponents want the irrigators to lose their ability to protect their property rights, paving the way for the improper and unlawful transfer of the water rights and project infrastructure to the CSKT as described in  Tester’s Bad Burrito, or S. 3013. These compact proponents—agents of the state and tribes–just blew it by their actions.

As long as this Board existed and was compromised by the Flathead District and other willing “get along-ers”, it was the largest and easiest target for the proponents, Tribes, and the state of Montana to push a central feature in the compact–the transfer of the bare legal title of the irrigators’ water rights to the Tribes for their control. Since that title would be transferred, the Tribes would claim and the state would comply with the wholesale transfer of water management authority to the unconstitutional, ill-formed, and unaccountable Unitary Management Board.  The big fat target is no more.

For those of you who still think this is an “Indian Irrigation Project”, now is the time to face reality: it is NOT.  The FIPP was built for all residents in this area, and by 1924 over 80% of the project was serving non-Indian settlers invited by the United States to settle the remaining unallotted lands.  Oh, and don’t forget that Tribal members sold their lands to the settlers. These lands were not “stolen” as some would have you incorrectly believe.  The Tribes have in fact received millions of dollars from the federal government to “repay” them for irrigated land the Indians sold to non-Indians. In 2018, over 90% of project lands are owned by non-Indians.

The Tribes can have their own opinion of this–aka its an Indian project– but they are not entitled to their own facts.

Project Turnover–Time to Move Forward

As required by Reclamation law and by the 1908 amendments to the Flathead Allotment Act, when the construction costs for the irrigation project are repaid by the project irrigators, the management and operation of the project shall be turned over to the landowners therein.

While some privately worry that the FJBC dissolution means that the project will never be turned over to the irrigators, its time to think again.  The FJBC was formed to achieve project turnover, that much is certain.  However because of the politics, compact, questionable “consultants and advisors”, and the incompetence of previous FJBC commissioners, that mission has failed.  But does that mean that the operation and management of the FIP cannot be turned over to the “project landowners” within the three, soon to be five, separate irrigation districts?  In our view, the answer is NO.

Face it: under the scenario of the project landowners having the authority for project operations and management, the FJBC would not have been the entity to manage the project.  Even in current  discussions of project turnover, and in the current lawsuit which was filed under both the FJBC and the three irrigation districts, Commissioners have been designing an entity that is separate from and NOT the FJBC.

The irrigation project management and administration would be left up to an irrigator-determined and paid technical staff, consisting of engineers, agronomists, hydrologists, economists/accountants, and ditch riders, supplemented by fish biologists and water quality specialists to inform the management of the project given existing instream flows and water quality objectives. The Tribes presumably would participate through staff who would manage  the 10% of Tribal lands within the project.

If we are to think at all about project management and administration, its time to think big, and think outside the box we have placed ourselves in—i.e., that the FJBC must exist to turn over the project management and administration to the landowners.

The CME: A Fake FIP Project Turnover?

The Cooperative Management Entity (CME), part of the agreement with the Department of the Interior, the irrigators,  and the CSKT, was destroyed by the withdrawal of two irrigation districts from the FJBC in December 2013.  Again a group of small-minded rogue commissioners who initiated this withdrawal—without permission from or agreement by their constituents–did this so as to push the CSKT compact forward.

Our analysis indicates that these commissioners had planned to use the CME as the entity to “agree” to the Compact since the FJBC would not.  Notice, if you will, the parallels between the Compact Implementation Technical Team (CITT), which was a last minute addition to the 2014-15 Compact because the irrigators did NOT support the compact.  The CITT is effectively a way to bring back the CME to implement the Tribes’ plan, which is to destroy irrigation in favor of instream flow.  Here again, the compact proponents’ plans failed when they intentionally broke upf the FJBC.

The reality of the CME was that it had the wrong proportionate representation according to the law and irrespective of the “approval of the Secretary”.  When 90% of the project is owned by non-Indians, who in part bought the land from Indians who sold it, and only 10% in Indian hands, why was it that the tribes had 50% representation and essentially controlled the CME because any tie was broken by the BIA member of the CME?

The CME was an illusion that gave irrigators a false sense of “local control”.  It was never designed for local control, it was always meant for Tribal control.

The only salvageable product of the CME is the 2010 Operations Plan, which is now the only legal plan that exists to operate and manage the Flathead Irrigation Project.  That’s a good thing.  It means that while the irrigators work in their own districts, litigate the issue, consider a plan for organization, operation and management, and while the compact is being considered by Congress, a solid operations plan exists to simply run the project as is without an FJBC.  That includes the delivery of non-quota water in the spring, which was approved in the 2010 plan.

Furthermore, the CITT is constrained because it cannot, pursuant to an unapproved compact, change or “adaptively manage” irrigation operations in a federal irrigation project.  To do so would turn federal law on its head, and transform a facial taking of water rights to an actual taking.

State law cannot supplant federal law in a federal irrigation project.

Next Steps?

We believe there are a number of steps that can and should be taken that will restore and strengthen the irrigation districts’ desire to take over the management and operations of the Flathead Irrigation Project:

  1. Request that the Secretary of the Interior, through the BIA, manage the FIP according to the 2010 operations planRemember that everyone–the tribes, the irrigators, and the United States–agreed on and cooperatively developed this plan.
  2. Continue the litigation forcing the Interior Department’s turnover of the operations and management of the project to the landowners, and continue to develop the management entity–separate from the FJBC– as has been underway by the districts for over two years.  Remember that this litigation is in the name of all three of the districts and the now-defunct FJBC.
  3. Break up the Flathead Irrigation District into two or three separate districts so as to eliminate the ability of one district to control all the other districts.  This should be done before any consideration of forming a new FJBC.
  4. Remove liens on irrigator lands. The FIP was paid off in full in 2003.
  5. Learn from the mistakes of the past FJBC. In addition to administrative procedures and better communication with irrigator constituents, consider eliminating all avenues for the breakup or control of the FJBC by a small group of rogue commissioners or a single district.

Importantly, remember that no amount of nicey-nice talking with the CSKT will change their objectives, which have been clear for more than a decade.  They want total unequivocal control of the FIP so that eventually they can dismantle it.

The sleeping GIANT—the irrigators of the Flathead Irrigation Project–is WOKE.  You have more power than you realize, now harness it for your future!