Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Water wars divide a Montana community

Jack Healy reports in the today's New York Times about a proposed water compact in Montana, a 1400-page agreement that is a decade in the making.  It allocates water on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Nation on the one hand and local farmers and ranchers on the other.  In fact, the compact would also settle Indian claims to fishing rights across western Montana--rights promised to the Indians as long ago as 1855.  Plus, the compact provides $55 million in state funding to upgrade the Reservation's water system.

Part of what makes the compact so controversial--and tensions so great--is that these groups have lived amidst one another, intermarrying and attending the same schools, for decades.  Indeed, white settlers permeated the reservation so completely that only 7000 Indians are among the 28,000 reservation residents.

The story's lede highlights the history and the current tensions:  
In a place where the lives and histories of Indian tribes and white settlers intertwine like mingling mountain streams, a bitter battle has erupted on this land over the rivers running through it. 
A water war is roiling the Flathead Indian Reservation here in western Montana, and it stretches from farms, ranches and mountains to the highest levels of state government, cracking open old divisions between the tribes and descendants of homesteaders who were part of a government-led land rush into Indian country a century ago.
The Montana state government considered the compact this spring, with Democratic governor Steve Bullock and some Republican lawmakers supporting it.  But others in the Republican dominated legislature ultimately killed the compact after farmers turned out to oppose it.  

Pursuant to the compact, farmers and ranchers would get 456,400 gallons/year for every acre they irrigate. Potato farmers fear this will be insufficient to support their crops, and ranchers say it won't be enough for their cattle and the crops grown to feed them.  

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