Human Dimensions of Irrigation in the Flathead River Basin

By Joel Brown, Department of Geography, University of Montana

Late spring signals the start of an annual rite of passage for water molecules in the Crown of the Continent. Slowly, as the winter snowpack starts to melt, the water it holds begins to move in an endless trek known as the hydrologic cycle. Runoff begins to flow into high mountain gullies and collects into swollen creeks and rivers. To the farmers and ranchers along the western flank of the Crown, spring runoff from the winter snowpack also signifies the beginning of irrigation season.

The western edge of the Crown of the Continent stretching from Whitefish down to the Jocko Valley is dotted with over a thousand farms and ranches that depend on irrigation water for their survival. Over 90% of the water used in the Flathead River Basin is used for irrigation. Starting in 2009 the Geography Department at the University of Montana (UM) is conducting a study to explore how water policy and perceptions of drought and water availability are affecting water management in the Flathead River basin. The project is headed by Dr. David Shively and Dr. Sarah Halvorson and is being done in conjunction with the Inland Northwest Research Alliance’s (INRA) Water Resource Consortium. The goal of the consortium is to foster a holistic understanding of water resources in the Intermountain West. Water policy in the Flathead River basin is complex, and initial findings have uncovered a diverse range of issues that irrigators are facing throughout the basin.

Irrigation in the basin is primarily found in two locations. An area north of Flathead Lake contains a mix of irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture. Agriculture in this area is primarily located in the Stillwater and Flathead River drainages as well as the Creston bench. In 2007, the USDA Census of Agriculture reported that Flathead County, where this northern agricultural area is centered, consists of over 250,000 acres of agricultural land. Of these 250,000 acres more than 50% are irrigated.

One Issue irrigators in this region are facing is the rising cost in both time and money that they have to spend on water right permitting and processing. Permit applications to change points of diversion can take more than a year to process and can be expensive as consultants are usually hired to prove the legitimacy of the existing water right as well as show that a change in diversion will not harm other water right holders. While the permitting process is meant to protect water users it often creates an unfamiliar and unappetizing procedure that irrigators, who traditionally have managed water with a handshake instead of high-priced consultants, are not thrilled about. On top of that, irrigators are also facing rising electrical power infrastructure installation costs making the installation of new pumps a costly venture. Utilities in the 1990s under-priced power line and transformer installation costs speculating that they would return large profits due to the development boom in areas around Kalispell and Whitefish. When these returns did not prove to be as substantial as the utilities had hoped they raised prices to recoup their costs.

The second major location of irrigated agriculture in the Flathead River Basin is located to the south of Flathead Lake. Separated only by the length of Flathead Lake (30 miles), this agricultural area in the Flathead River basin is dealing with a much different set of water policy issues than its northern counterpart. This agricultural area stretches the entirety of the Mission valley spilling over to the south into the Jocko valley. To the west, agriculture extends out into the Moiese valley and the Camas area. This large agricultural area is almost entirely irrigated by the Flathead Irrigation Project (FIP). The FIP is the largest irrigation project in Montana as well as the largest of 16 Federal irrigation projects run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In total, it serves over 128,000 acres of land. Its size and variety of water sources also makes it one of the most hydrologically complex in the United States. The FIP stores water in 15 different reservoirs and delivers it through thousands of miles of canals, ditches, and laterals. While the delivery of water within the FIP is physically complex, issues surrounding its management may be even more complicated. Irrigators on the project are struggling with what they see as major inefficiencies in FIP management. One irrigator mentioned that the FIP employees only work Monday through Friday and nine to five. This kind of schedule is not conducive to farming as irrigators cannot easily get their water turned on and off when desired in order to maximize water use efficiency. Other issues with project have been described as being rooted in the bureaucratic management style that the BIA, as a federal agency, has to adhere to. Irrigators have noted that it takes excessively long to fill vacant jobs due to BIA hiring procedures that can take more than six months to complete. Additionally, this spring, an order of pesticides used to clean out moss clogged canals has been delayed for months due to BIA ordering procedures. Despite these perceived inefficiencies in FIP management, several irrigators have noted that the problem does not lie specifically with the FIP management team but with the bureaucratic management policies that the FIP, as a project of the federally controlled BIA, has to adhere too.

In response to the perceived inefficiency of the FIP, irrigators have long wanted to transfer management of the irrigation project away from the BIA and into the hands of non-Tribal irrigators who are represented by the Flathead Joint Board of Control (FJBC). However, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation have traditionally rejected this as an option due to its movement of Tribal resources to a non-Tribal entity. For many years this conflict has been the source of animosity between the CSKT and the FJBC. Recently, both the CSKT and the FJBC have put differences aside and have started working towards a cooperative management entity that would transfer management of the FIP from the BIA to a management group made up of both Tribal and FJBC interests. Concurrently, the CSKT are also negotiating with the state of Montana to finally quantify the tribe’s water rights in the basin. These decisions will carry great weight and strongly alter water policy and the management of water in the Flathead River Basin.

Collectively the Flathead River Basin is home to a number of diverse and challenging water management issues. The UM Geography Department’s research will continue to explore how water policy is evolving and affecting water management in the Flathead River basin. As an interconnected hydrologic system, the future of water resources in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem will depend on the human needs and water management decisions made in the Flathead River basin.