Irrigation project management: ball is in irrigators’ court

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Next to the weather, farmers and ranchers complain most about Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) poor management of our irrigation project. Local project managers also are frustrated with the BIA’s cumbersome hiring and procurement policies and the fact that they get blamed.

Some irrigators recall the good old days, from 2010 to 2013, when an irrigator-tribes Cooperative Management Entity (CME) managed the project. Unfortunately, in 2014, conflicts among irrigators, related mainly to differences over the water Compact and opposition to the CME, forced BIA to resume control over project management.

Something needs to be done to improve irrigation project performance. Aware of the problems, CSKT is open to discussing ways to restore local cooperation and control. And I have no doubt that BIA, for many reasons, would love to get out managing this project.

Thus the ball is now in the court of irrigators. The Flathead Irrigation District (FID), working with Mission and Jocko irrigation districts if possible, needs to develop a proposal for a local management entity. Difficult issues include board size, composition, representation and election procedures. There also is the issue of how a new entity should be structured so that political conflict among irrigators or within the tribes would not force BIA to again resume control.

This top-down approach should be accompanied by a bottom-up approach. FID should reestablish a positive working relationship with project management that existed before 2014. Among other possibilities, FID could directly finance and manage rehabilitation projects.

It also is time for irrigators to see if any Compact alternatives have been developed by opponents that would provide farmers and ranchers with more water with greater security. I think they will find that the Compact remains best way forward because no alternative has been developed other than costly litigation in Montana Water Court.

Dick Erb, Moiese

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