Flathead Indian Irrigation Project complicated history adds a new chapter

Char-Koosta News 

There have been some relatively recent and recent monumental and historical water-related issues on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The most significant among them is the Flathead Nation Federal Reserved Water Rights Compact, also known as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, that was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont) and Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont) and it was passed in late-December 2020. 

The Flathead Nation Federal Reserved Water Rights Compact became official in September 2021 when Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland signed off on it.

The water rights settlement provides for many things, paramount among them is the quantification of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water rights, and the right to manage water within the exterior boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation, as well as the acknowledgement off reservation water rights. 

Metaphysically among the settlement’s provisions is the restoration of the National Bison Range to the Flathead Nation. 

The other very obvious and noticeable item in the settlement is the fiscal provision is the $1.9 billion. Of that sum $900 million will be used to reconstruct the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. 

That expenditure will turbo charge the local, area and regional economy with its creation of monetary opportunities for contractors and subcontractors, individual employment, supply chain vendor, local food vendors, grocery stores, and fuel suppliers, among others.

The FIIP serves approximately 127,000 acres of Flathead Reservation land, and was built to serve the members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on their irrigatable land allotments. However, now the land it serves is around 90 percent non-Indian owned. 

This summer, with the first of 10 $90 million annual payments in a trust fund, the ground will be broken on the reconstruction of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. The reconstruction will begin in what is referred to as the FIIP K-Canal North Project that focuses on the K-Canal and the Jocko Valley lands north of the Jocko River. See related article.

To give a bit of a historical perspective on how the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project came to be, here are some key dates in the first 100 years of the Flathead Nation’s connection to FIIP and water.

• In 1855, the Bitterroot Salish, the Upper Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai Nations signed the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate. The three Tribal Nations gave up a lot but they also retained and reserved a lot of their long established pre-existing rights.  

• In 1904, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, as a portion of the Flathead Reservation Allotment Act. It was to serve Indian allotment lands, and unallotted lands that were opened for settlement by non-Indians.

• In 1907, the U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to begin construction of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. In the Congressional authorization the construction of FIIP was to be paid for by the sale of Flathead Nation lands and timber resources. 

• In 1908, the U.S. Congress set up the provision that the operation and management of FIIP would pass from the federal authorities to the landowners served by FIIP.

• In 1909, the U.S. Congress and the Department of Interior reserved sites on the Flathead Reservation that were suited for the development of hydropower. 

As a result of that construction of the Newell Tunnel began as part of the proposed hydropower site that became Kerr Dam, but is now under Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes ownership, and renamed Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam.

• In 1916, the U.S. Congress called for the FIIP and Newell Tunnel construction costs paid for by the Flathead Nation to be repaid.

To that end, Congress mandated that the landowners served by FIIP reimburse the federal government for the FIIP construction costs.

• In 1924, the Secretary of Interior transferred the responsibility for design and construction oversight from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

• In 1926, a U.S. Congress Act required BIA operated FIIP to negotiate repayment contracts with the 1926 Montana State charted Flathead, Mission and Jocko irrigation districts served by FIIP. Until that was done, Congress would withhold any federal appropriations.

• From 1928 to 1934 the irrigation districts’ repayment contracts were negotiated and executed. 

• In 1928, a U.S. Congress Act authorized the construction of a power distribution system on the Flathead Reservation, that became known as the Flathead Indian Power Project. When the CSKT compacted management of FIIP in the late 1980s under the auspices of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act it renamed it Mission Valley Power.

The Act also called for the Federal Power Commission to grant licenses to non-federal entities for development of hydropower facilities at the Flathead River sites reserved by the federal government in 1909.

• In 1930, a subsidiary of the Montana Power Company received a 50-year license to construct, operate and maintain a hydropower facility at the federal reserved site that became Kerr Dam.

• In 1931, FIIP became operational.

• From the early-1930s to the mid-1940s, the state charted irrigation districts failed to reimburse the federal government for the FIIP facilities and infrastructure construction costs, as well as the operation and maintenance fees.

Additionally further construction of FIIP infrastructure was halted related to cost limits in the repayment contract. 

• In 1948, a U.S. Congress Act of May 25, 1948 dealt with the non-payment of the repayment contract mandates, and the operation and maintenance fees. The Act removed the Flathead, Mission and Jocko irrigation districts’ Flathead Indian Power Project construction repayment obligations. 

It also called for establishment of FIIP revenues to be used to pay off the cost of Flathead Indian Irrigation Power Project.

To be continued.

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