WyoFile/Ron Feemster
The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages Ray Lake, which is at historic lows. Even so, it remains online as a water source for some irrigators. A family plays on a lakebed beach that that would be underwater in better years.

Drought, Controversy May Spur Changes in Wind River Irrigation Management

Ron Feemster, Wyofile

The two main irrigation systems on the Wind River Indian Reservation could hardly be more different. The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages one, a sprawling network of canals running south and east of the Washakie Reservoir and the Little Wind River. Local water users run the other, a smaller system in Crowheart (population 141) between Fort Washakie and Dubois. Much of the system that the BIA directly controls ran dry over the summer. The system that local users run—on paper they are contractors working for the BIA—will deliver water until the irrigation season ended in early October.

Many ranchers on the BIA-controlled system are culling their herds because they can’t grow or buy enough hay to feed their cattle. Irrigators on the Crowheart system have prospered, even during a drought that has dragged on, with an occasional wet year, for more than a decade. Water fees on the BIA-run system are $21 per acre per year, whether water is delivered for the full season or not. In Crowheart, users pay $14 per acre.

Every acre in Crowheart is leased to a farmer or rancher, according to the local irrigators who control the system. Not so in the lower system. Anyone who drives the back roads north of Lander sees unplanted fields overgrown with knapweed. Most of the ranchers and farmers there, south of Fort Washakie and Ethete, draw water from Ray Canal, which branches into a web of irrigation canals, laterals and ditches fed by the Washakie Reservoir and the Little Wind River. Ray Canal has been dry since about August 1.

“We no longer lease land,” said Fred Tanning, 72, who lives off Highway 287 and farms 260 deeded acres. “It would be different if you could get water.”

This is the second consecutive year that Ray Canal, a section of the system that irrigates almost 11,000 acres, ran out of water when nearly half the irrigation season remained. Even so, what strikes a visitor first at water-user meetings in Fort Washakie and Crowheart is less a difference in irrigation effectiveness than a contrast in culture.

The water users in the BIA system are dependent on the decision-making of the agency, which runs a locked system. Federal employees—the BIA ditch riders—open and close diversion structures and headgates in response to requests from the water users, provided that those requests do not conflict with the directions of the BIA managers. Open or closed, the gates controlling water delivery are locked in place with padlocks belonging to the federal government. And when water doesn’t flow, the users get mad.

“I only got 45 days of water,” said Sara Robinson, a Ray Canal irrigator in the Boulder Flats area, who is also the Eastern Shoshone liaison to Gov. Matt Mead’s office. “I paid for a whole bunch of water that I didn’t get.”

The Crowheart system is open. Users talk among themselves about how to push enough water to everybody’s fields. Headgates are not padlocked. Water users make collective decisions about who gets how much water and when. Irrigators open and close their own headgates. The board encourages everyone to think about water for their neighbors downstream in addition to water they need themselves.

“The moment you think about your own water and not everybody’s water, you’ve lost the battle,” said Lyle Alexander, head of the Crowheart Bench Water Users Association. “The moment you put a padlock on the system, you’ve lost.”

Alexander first formed a formal users group in 1997 with 12 irrigators on A-Canal, a small part of the 10,500-acre Crowheart system. In 2005, irrigators on the Dinwoody Lake system formed a second users group. Although the two groups are separate nonprofit organizations on paper, their boards overlap and they hold joint meetings on Monday mornings. Alexander chairs both boards.

For the most part, users hold practical, civil discussions at those meetings. If a user goes rogue and insists on more than his share of the water, the local board can lock his headgate. But by all accounts this happens only rarely—not least because everyone usually has enough water.

“The best way to handle an issue is to put it in the hands of the irrigators,” Alexander said. “Water users know more about their land and water than the BIA.”

Battling the BIA

Farmers and ranchers on Ray Canal point to the burned patches of yellow grass that stripe their hay fields even after the recent rains. They say the Bureau of Indian Affairs is simply not up to the task of managing water delivery for the nearly 40,000 acres of land under irrigation in the Wind River Irrigation System. But there is little that the irrigators can do besides complain. They pay $21 per acre per year to receive water, but they have little practical input into BIA policy.

Wind River Water Resource Control Board, which advises the tribes and the tribal water engineer’s office, gives local irrigators a voice. But members wonder if the BIA listens. After a year of severe drought, and what many on the irrigation system called gross mismanagement in 2012, the water board, the tribal water engineer and the Joint Business Council of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes called on the BIA to dismiss Brent Allen, the local project manager, before the irrigation season.

Chief among many complaints of the tribes and users is what they see as the agency’s—and more pointedly Allen’s—failure to distribute water fairly. After the reservoir ran dry and Ray Canal irrigators like Robinson ran out of water, Ray Lake, another water source that feeds a different part of the system, remained online. Water users who jammed the water board meeting blame the BIA for not developing and executing a plan that would give everyone the same amount of water.

“This board directed BIA and Mr. Allen to not do what you just did,” Robinson told Allen and his superiors, John Anevski and Ed Parisian of the BIA regional office in Billings. “That is, drain the dam and let Ray Lake continue to run so that all of those non-Indian farmers down at Arapahoe can continue to irrigate while all the tribal farmers have no water.”

Brent Allen, project manager of the Wind River Irrigation System (l) and John Anevski, head of the Division of Water and Power at the BIA Office of Trust Services

Brent Allen, project manager of the Wind River Irrigation System (l) and John Anevski, head of the Division of Water and Power at the BIA Office of Trust Services

Robinson, who is also a member of the water board, was speaking at a board meeting in Fort Washakie last month. Tribal leaders, the BIA and local water users, Indians and non-Indians, gathered to air grievances and look for a common path forward. One in three acres on the system is owned or leased by a non-Indian, according to Mitch Cottenoir, the tribal water engineer. Robinson went on to say that the board addressed the issue at the end of last year.

“And we’re still talking about it now after this board voted and gave you direction to not operate it that way,” she said. “But you did it anyway.”

The BIA, for its part, says the irrigators on Ray Canal wanted their water and got it. The year was hot. Snow and rain were scarce. When the reservoir was empty and Ray Canal went dry, there was nothing more the BIA could do. Meanwhile, if there is water for other users, the BIA is going to deliver it.

“We’re responsible for operating and maintaining the system for delivering the water,” said Anevski. “And if we have water in Ray Lake, we’re going to use it. We’re not going to shut the downstream water users off if there is water in Ray Lake. So we’ll continue to operate it.”

Anevski nearly always speaks for Allen, who spoke for less than three minutes at the meeting in Fort Washakie. Allen generally refers questions to Anevski in Billings.

Water users are not satisfied with Anevski’s explanation of why some areas on the reservation get more water than others. They point out that most years since 2000 have been dry, but that better management guaranteed a more balanced use of water sources for Ray Canal and Ray Lake. They say there was more water for everyone in the years before Allen’s arrival as project manager in 2012. Allen, they say, does not understand the local system.

“The ditch rider who knew the upper system and could get everyone water, he resigned,” said Gail O’Neal, who ranches near Plunkett Road in Boulder Flats. The man resigned in January of this year, between seasons. “They did not replace him,” O’Neal said. She says the new ditch rider lets water flow down the canal without getting her headgates open. “The new ditch rider told me I wasted my water,” she said in frustration.

O’Neal’s son-in-law, Tom Morrison, said the family paid $14,000 in water fees and received less than half the water they had coming to them. “And that’s not to mention $15,000 in fertilizer that went into the air because we had no water.”

Heather Morrison, Tom’s wife, points out that BIA employees draw a salary in years when the canals go dry. “Water is our livelihood,” she said. “They get paid either way.”

O’Neal says her family had to let some of their land go to seed this year. They put the water they had on two 80-acre parcels. The ditch rider is supposed to clear trash from the canals when it blocks the flow of water. “Tom and I dug the trash out of the canal this year.”

Because BIA does not have measuring devices on all of the canals, according to Anevski, it can be difficult to determine who got how much water in which year. Documenting the alleged shortfalls of BIA water management may be an insurmountable challenge for most water users.

Even so, local ranchers have another method for measuring adequate irrigation. They count bales of hay per acre each year. This year and last, ranchers on Ray Canal say they harvested one bale of hay for every three they put up in 2006 and 2008.

Deferred Maintenance

Even when communication is good, water is lost because the 100-year-old BIA-controlled system has been poorly maintained. Unlined canals let water seep into fields and gullies where it is not needed. Canals and ditches have not been dredged, slowing the flow and shrinking the volume of water. Diversion structures fail to open or close all the way, which limits the control that ditch riders have on the direction of water.

Irrigators who attended the water board meeting with the BIA last month say the canals have not been cleaned and dredged, the flow is slow or nonexistent to some headgates on the system, and calls to repair broken structures or seepage go unanswered for years at a time.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) in 2011, Cottenoir noted that the last comprehensive, “project-wide rehabilitation” of the system came in the 1930s. A 1994 study showed that 60 percent of the 1,200 structures on the system needed repair, and that 45 percent of the 190 miles of laterals and canals needed repair or reconstruction. Seventeen years later, the list of needed repairs had grown longer, according to Cottenoir’s letter.

The BIA says it cannot make repairs because it lacks the money. The agency receives about $1 million a year in federal funding for 15 irrigation systems on Indian lands across the West. Most of the money spent on the systems comes from user fees. But once the user fees are paid into the system—more than $700,000 a year at $21 and $14 an acre—that money belongs to the federal government. BIA officials, not the water users, decide how it is to be invested, how much goes for salaries, and how much is to be held in reserve to fund future repairs to major structures like Washakie Dam.

Irrigators at the water board pointed out over and over that the BIA is spending the water users’ money. Their rates have nearly doubled in two decades. The fee was $10.90 per acre in 1991. And as they pay more, they see the system deteriorating.

“The BIA started this project 100 years ago,” said Dick Baldes, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee who raises horses and hay on Trout Creek Road. “The system is maybe 40 percent efficient. $1 million is nothing. We need $50 million or $60 million. We’re at the headwaters. I’m the first one on Ray Canal and I’m out of water.”

Some longtime irrigators estimate deferred maintenance at $100 million. But no one seems to agree on a dollar figure, or on a list of projects that need to be tackled first. The BIA has budgeted or spent almost $7 million in state and federal money on enhancements of the system, primarily large diversion structures. But even these improvements are controversial, because they contain fish screens that guide the fish away from the irrigation system through underground passages back to the river. And although they save hundreds of thousands of fish, according to Cottenoir and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, irrigators say they slow the flow of water.

Despite the big improvements, the canals that carry water to the headgates of individual irrigators remain in disrepair. And the meeting room in Fort Washakie was still jammed with irrigators who say they have no water.

A Better Way

In fact, how far water users’ money goes depends in no small part on who spends it. After fighting their own battles with BIA and doing a great deal of unreimbursed maintenance on the system, irrigators on the Crowheart system eventually struck a new deal with the agency. The farmers pay their user fees to BIA, but the agency returns a portion of the money to the farmer-controlled nonprofit to spend on maintaining the system.

“We got one half of the money back,” said Will O’Neal. The Crowheart Bench Water Users Association hires its own ditch rider. It chooses the parts of the system to maintain. “We clean canals for $1.25 a foot,” O’Neal said. “All of our projects are put out to competitive bid. The BIA might spend $50,000 for a quarter mile.” At the CBWUA rate, cleaning a quarter mile of canal costs $1,650.

Although the local nonprofit is actually getting its own members’ money back, the federal government regards the group as a federal contractor. When the money is paid into the BIA accounts, it becomes federal money. To receive the federal contracts, the nonprofit must be registered with the government, hold a valid DUNS number, and file miles of paperwork.

But in the end, the group regains control of its land and water. With the sense of ownership comes an increased willingness to volunteer time and resources. Members drive their own vehicles without mileage reimbursement. One man claimed that he drove his pickup 70,000 miles in a year and barely left the reservation. Stories of irrigators getting together to work on canals and laterals are common. When structures need to be repaired or rebuilt, the group joins forces to pour concrete.

Where It Began

Asked how this culture of cooperation and mutual assistance got its start, Lyle Alexander pointed to Tim Schell, a former Crowheart hay farmer who now works at the airport in Dubois and flies a plane tracking radio collars on wildlife.

Schell, 65, came to Lander from western North Carolina in 1973 to work as an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. He left NOLS in 1976 to take a job on a ranch near Crowheart. Two years later, at the age of 30, he raised his hand at an auction and bought 300 acres on the A-Canal irrigation system operated by the BIA.

He began growing hay. When he complained that he was not getting enough water down his canal, the ditch rider said that the canal bank had a low spot. Schell hooked up a scraper—an earth-moving shovel that he could drag along behind a tractor—and removed silt from the bottom of the canal and piled it on the bank to deepen the channel.

When the canal was clear, Schell called the ditch rider, who took one look at it and diverted more water into the canal. Schell and the people downstream on the canal all got more water.

A year or two later, he took his private clean-up initiative one step further. “I hired a guy with a trackhoe and asked him to clear one half mile of canal,” Schell said. “I told no one. I just wrote the guy a $5,000 check.”

Once again, the ditch rider gave him more water. The tribal water board came and looked at the canal. They said nothing, but did not disapprove. Schell invited other irrigators to participate.

“I asked two neighbors to contribute and we did it again the next year,” Schell said. “One Indian guy and one non-Indian. They didn’t always get along but they both did it. It paid to do it because we got a better crop.”

Schell made improvements in the system that helped his own fields, but he was careful to do work that helped others as well.

“Two people saw what I did,” he said. “You can’t tell anybody anything. You do it. People see the results and decide to be part of it. It wasn’t directed from the top. It came from the bottom. I did it alone one year, and they saw the results. I was willing to put my blood, sweat and money into it. They trusted it.”

Lyle Alexander was one of the neighbors who saw and helped. Schell, who learned to fly in 1984 and had an airstrip on his farm, showed his neighbors the canals from the air. The coming-together process took a long time. First Schell, Alexander and their neighbors had to learn to trust one another. Then they needed to gain the trust of the BIA.

“I never ever asked the BIA for my money back,” Schell said. “I did ask them to give us part of our O&M money back so that we could hire contractors to do the work.” “O&M” refers to “operation and management,” one of the ways the BIA refers to user fees.

Schell and Alexander started the original users group in Crowheart, on the A-Canal system. They prospered and bought more land. Schell had 600 acres when he sold out in 2004. Alexander farms 1,800 irrigated acres now.

“Tribal member or white, water is water,” said Alexander, who is married to a Shoshone woman. “Water is the key to agriculture. It’s in everybody’s best interests to make the system work.”

And to make it work, Schell says, the local people need to call the shots and work together.

“People who farm the land need to control the system or they get screwed,” Schell said. “I used lots of water, but then I shut it off. If I get more water, I have to make sure that everybody else on the canal gets as much or more water than me.”

The Way Forward

Fred Tanning, the Ray Canal farmer who stopped leasing land because he could no longer get water to irrigate it, attended a recent Monday morning meeting of the Crowheart water user groups. He was representing the Ray Canal irrigators, who want to join forces with other reservation irrigators to create a water users group that might eventually take back O&M money from the BIA and use it to maintain failing canals.

“You guys have been the model and the inspiration for us,” Tanning said. “We are up here to learn from you.”

The new group, which did not yet have a name at the time, aims to begin by electing a board and seeking recognition from the tribes. They will ask the Joint Business Council, the Tribal Water Engineer and the water board for their blessings before approaching the BIA. Then the group must become a 501(c)(3) and register as a contractor with the federal government.

“Take the bylaws from the Crowheart group,” Alexander suggested. “Rewrite them if you have to. But start there.”

The Crowheart group is a simple democracy for most issues. Each irrigator gets one vote. But for projects that require scalable investment, in which people stand to profit or lose money in proportion to the size of their farms, each acre under irrigation gets one vote.

Given the size of the new water users group, the board will have to guarantee that people with different interests work together. To be effective, the Ray Canal and Ray Lake irrigators must be in the same group. Boulder Flats must stand with Arapahoe.

Anevski, for his part, hopes that the new group succeeds. “I want to work with the tribes and the water users,” he said at the meeting in Fort Washakie. “User groups have been effective. But people want it to work tomorrow. It will take years.”

Many of the Crowheart irrigators attended the Fort Washakie meeting. They have watched the often fruitless negotiations between the BIA and the irrigators to the south of their lands. They have spent years learning to manage their own system. For the most part, Alexander says, their communication with the BIA is effective today. The big challenge for the new users group will be learning to get along with each other—just as it was in the beginning in Crowheart.

“Get people from different geographic areas on your board,” Alexander advised. The Crowheart groups succeeded early on because everyone drew water from the same canals on a compact system. What was good for one was good for all. In the larger system—nearly 30,000 acres strung out along 150 miles of canal from Fort Washakie to Arapahoe—resolving differences will be key.

“Then you need workers,” O’Neal said. “We have people who run their 4-wheelers 3,000 miles a year.”

Tom Morrison, the Boulder Flats rancher who helped his mother-in-law dig trash out of irrigation canals, says he doesn’t mind the work. And he sees few alternatives to forming a water users group like the one in Crowheart: “We’ve got to do it,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll lose what we have.”

Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected].

WyoFile is a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. Reprinted with permission.