Two Tribes Exercise Water Rights To Missouri River

Tuesday, March 27th 2007, 7:06 am
By: News On 6

POPLAR, Mont. (AP) _ Though the Fort Peck Reservation fronts more than 100 miles of the Missouri River, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes have scarcely tapped the waters for economic gain.

Tribal leaders say they plan to change that, and hope to eradicate the reservation's poverty in the process. Using 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.

``This is going to absolutely transform this entire region,'' said Thomas ``Stoney'' Anketell, a tribal council member leading the push to tap the Missouri.

``This is some of the worst dry-land farming there is,'' he said, gesturing toward the reservation's brown, treeless landscape. ``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 gaining financial backing.

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.

The plan's cornerstone is the tribes' state-recognized right to more than a million acre-feet of Missouri River water annually _ enough to cover a million acres with water one foot deep _ roughly 300 billion gallons.

Montana assigned the water rights to the tribes in 1985, one of the first such agreements in the nation.

But the agreement included no money to develop the means to put the water to use, said Barbara Cosens, a law professor at the University of Idaho specializing in water rights.

Two decades later, the tribes use just 3 percent of the water, for small irrigation projects and a drinking water system now under construction, 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.

``If you put in water we'll get $200, $300 an acre,'' he said.

Morales hopes to have 100,000 acres under irrigation within 10 years.

The river water could be the solution to the tribes' economic problems, Morales said.

``We've been saying we're tied up, there's nothing we can do,'' he said. ``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 worries that a tribe-owned resource _ its water right _ would be used primarily to benefit the outside agricultural companies Morales has invited to run the project.

Morales acknowledged much of the initial profit would go to nontribal companies. But involving major players from the agricultural industry is the only practical avenue for achieving economic development, he said.

Tribal leaders also expect water users downriver to oppose their plan.

Downriver users of the Missouri include a barge industry forced to scale back operations in recent years because of drought. 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, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said of Fort Peck's water right.

Susan Cottingham, of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, said the tribes' plan to seek federal funding for irrigation could become ``a political football'' if downriver states perceive a threat to their economies.