Water 

Irrigators sling mud

A feud among Flathead Indian Reservation farmers and ranchers that's mired in allegations of racism and illegalities is jeopardizing a groundbreaking collaboration between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and non-native irrigators. "It is really ugly," says Flathead Reservation cattle rancher Jerome "Jerry" Laskody.

The Flathead Joint Board of Control helps manage the reservation's sprawling irrigation project on behalf of roughly 2,500 farmers and ranchers. On June 14, two of three FJBC districts, the Jocko and the Mission, voted to withdraw from the board, leaving only the Flathead District in their wake. Because the FJBC can't exist as a standalone entity, farmers and ranchers fear that the dissolution threatens local irrigation system oversight.

In the early 1980s, reservation residents formed the FJBC as part of a long-term effort to gain control of the irrigation project, rather than leaving it to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Laskody notes the BIA has a spotty track record managing such endeavors.

The effort to assume local control was lauded when, in 2010, Flathead Reservation irrigators and the tribes crafted an unprecedented supervisory body called a "Cooperative Management Entity." Composed of four tribal representatives and four FJBC members, it enabled locals to assume control of the irrigation project and has been touted as a collaboration unlike any other in the nation.

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Irrigators fear that if the FJBC falls apart it will trigger a clause in the cooperative management agreement that stipulates in an emergency the BIA can reassume control. "That scares a lot of people," Laskody says.

The rift is rooted in a conflict over the CSKT's ongoing efforts to quantify their water rights based on promises included in the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate. For more than a decade, tribal, state and federal negotiators have worked to craft the agreement, spelling out how much water would be allocated for irrigators and commercial and residential use, while ensuring protections for the reservation's prized fish hatcheries.

The agreement stalled this past year, largely as a result of fears expressed by some Flathead irrigators, including Laskody, who worry that the plan, also called a compact, won't guarantee them enough water to sustain their operations.

Others, however, including FJBC representative Kerry Doney, who voted on behalf of the Jocko Irrigation District to sever his district's affiliation with the body last week, see the agreement as the best possible compromise. He says he voted to break away in part because he doesn't want the people he represents to get bogged down in the expensive litigation that will likely arise in the absence of a compact. "The water-use agreement, in my opinion, is for everybody," he says.

The vote to dissolve the FJBC is slated to take effect 90 days after the June 14 vote.

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