U.S. Water News Online
POPLAR, Mont. -- As the Missouri River drops out of the
Rocky Mountains and snakes across the plains toward St. Louis, it
passes through some of the most barren land in the country. It was
here, on an arid expanse of rolling hills in northeastern Montana,
that the federal government relocated the Assiniboine and Sioux
Indians in the late 1800s.
Although the tribes' Fort Peck Reservation fronted more than 100
miles of the Missouri, the river went largely unused and the tribes
have struggled to eke a living from an area where rainfall totals can
rival those of the deserts of the Southwest.
But now tribal leaders have a plan they say could help free their
people of the poverty endemic to the reservation. By tapping billions
of gallons of water from the Missouri, they want to irrigate up to
half-a-million acres of sandy soil in the surrounding hills to grow
potatoes, onions and other high-value crops.
That vision, if realized, could reshape eastern Montana and make
the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes the regional arbiter of one of the
West's most valued resources -- water.
"This is going to absolutely transform this entire region,"
proclaimed Thomas "Stoney" Anketell, a tribal council member leading
the push to tap the Missouri.
He gestured at the reservation's brown, treeless landscape with a
sweep of his hand, "This is some of the worst dry-land farming there
is. That's why the tribes own so much of it. But take a bunch of
sagebrush and sandy-type soils, put water on it and something magic
happens ... This time, our people will be the wealthy ones."
So far, Anketell's dream amounts to little more than a tantalizing
business plan, which he and other tribal leaders are shopping around
to banks and state and federal officials in hopes of obtaining
financial backing for an initial 15,000-acre irrigation project. With
the region suffering from a prolonged drought, political opposition
from downstream interests is inevitable if the tribe pushes ahead
with its larger vision.
But the Assiniboine and Sioux have something dozens of American
Indian tribes across the country still lack -- a state-recognized
right to more than a million acre feet of Missouri River water
annually. That's enough to cover a million acres with water one foot
deep, roughly 300 billion gallons.
When an agreement on that right was signed by Montana and the
tribes in 1985, it was one of the first in the nation. Twenty-two
years later, it remains one of the largest.
The premise behind such deals is simple, said Michael Jackson, a
former Congressional aide who spent 20 years dealing with Indian
tribes -- because the United States forced nomadic tribes such as the
Assiniboine and Sioux into a reservation-bound existence, they
deserved access to water and other resources.
Yet the Fort Peck agreement lacked a crucial element -- Money to
build the infrastructure needed to put the water to use, said Barbara
Cosens, a law professor at the University of Idaho specializing in
Two decades later, the tribes use just 3 percent of the water, for
small irrigation projects and a drinking water system now under
development, Anketell said.
Much of the agricultural land on the 2.1 million acre reservation
is either fallow or used for dryland wheat, a crop worth about $12 an
acre, said tribal chairman John Morales. Meanwhile, rampant
unemployment leads some tribal members to take 150-mile roundtrip bus
ride for low-wage jobs at the nearest Wal-Mart Supercenter, in North
"If you put in water we'll get $200, $300 an acre," Morales said.
Regarding the reservation's poverty, he added, "We've been saying
we're tied up, there's nothing we can do. We've had the key to the
handcuffs all along."
Others are less sure.
Richard Kirn is a tribal council member who has clashed with
Morales and Anketell over the irrigation project. He worried that a
tribe-owned resource -- its water right -- would be used primarily to
benefit the outside agricultural companies Morales has invited to run
the irrigation project.
While the tribe as a whole would benefit, Kirn said he worries
some landowners would not. Kirn leases out about 1,000 acres where
the initial project is planned.
Morales acknowledged much of the initial profits from the planned
irrigation projects would go to nontribal companies. But he said
involving major players from the agricultural industry was the only
practical avenue for achieving economic development.
Downstream users of the Missouri's water, including a barge
industry forced to scale back operations in recent years because of
drought, will be watching. The barges transport grains and other
goods downriver from Canada and northern states.
"The water they use is the water we don't get," Mike Wells, with
the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said of Fort Peck's
Direct interference in the tribes' affairs in unlikely, said Susan
Cottingham with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.
But she said the tribes' plan to seek federal funding for irrigation
could become "a political football" if downstream states perceived a
threat to their economies.
The tribes need $45 million for the initial 15,000-acre project.
Earlier this month, they asked federal and state officials to
subsidize half the cost, with the rest to be covered by private
Morales hopes to have 100,000 acres under irrigation within 10
years. If that happens, and downstream states and municipalities get
nervous about the tribe depleting the Missouri, he said the tribe
would consider not developing its remaining water right in exchange
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