Cooperative Takes Over Flathead Irrigation Project

By Beacon Staff

A new cooperative made up of tribal representatives and non-American Indian landowners will take over management Friday of a federal irrigation project covering about 135,000 acres in the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The new cooperative, the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project Cooperative Management Entity, is made up of an equal number of representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Flathead Joint Board of Control. The board represents non-Indian irrigation interests in the Flathead, Mission and Jocko Valley irrigation districts.

Under the agreement, signed Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the cooperative will manage the Flathead Irrigation Project’s 17 reservoirs, 1,300 miles of canals and more than 10,000 structures.

Until now, the century-old irrigation project had been operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the federal government will keep ownership. This is the first such management partnership undertaken at an irrigation project owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This is truly a historic agreement we are signing today with our non-Indian neighbors,” said E.T. “Bud” Moran, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “I am glad we decided a few years ago to resolve our differences through negotiation.”

The agreement is the culmination of seven years of negotiations between the groups and technical work on issues that included rights-of-ways, treaty-protected fisheries, biological resources, wildlife habitat and Native American traditional and cultural properties and resources.

“We actually had an agreement in principal within four to six months of the start of negotiations,” said Alan Mikkelson, a consultant for the Flathead Joint Board of Control. “It took six and a half years to do the technical work, the engineering and environmental studies, and hammer out the details.”

Congress authorized in 1904 allotments of land within the reservation to members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and construction of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project for their benefit, using the Mission Mountains to the east of the reservation as the water source.

Congress four years later amended the act to authorize the construction of irrigation systems for homesteaded lands within the reservation, and called for the eventual turnover of the operation to non-Indian lands served by the irrigation project when certain conditions had been met.

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