Courtesy Sen. Barrasso’s Office
Mitchel T. Cottenoir, Tribal Water Engineer for the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes of Wind River Reservation, and Harry Labonde Jr., director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, testify before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in support of the IRRIGATE Act on March 4.

Indian Country’s Aging Irrigation Projects Need Attention Now


Without proper water supplies to crops during the summer months many reservations throughout the west feel a significant impact on their economies. Water projects that have, for too long, lacked adequate funding from the federal government are receiving attention in a bi-partisan bill addressed in a hearing by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on March 4.

The Irrigation Rehabilitation and Renovation for Indian Tribal Governments and Their Economies Act (the IRRIGATE Act), S.438, would hold the federal government accountable for addressing the growing maintenance backlog of aging Indian irrigation projects originally initiated by the government in the late 1800s and early 1900s throughout the west.

“These irrigation projects were intended to be a central component for tribal economies,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said. But by the 1940s construction on said projects ended leaving many unfinished. In 2006 the Government Accountability Office found a slew of issues plaguing many of the projects that included: maintenance issues, structural deficiencies, and insufficient funding for project operations.

Since then, the Committee has held a field hearing in 2011 and an oversight hearing last September. “Those hearings confirmed a serious backlog in deferred maintenance exists and continues to grow,” Barrasso said. A backlog that the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates costs exceeding $567 million – a number some tribes say is much higher.

The Act will ensure the government upholds its promise to build and maintain these projects by providing Indian country with $35 million to be disbursed from 2015 to 2036. The funds will go towards operations and maintenance including all structures, facilities, equipment, or vehicles used in connection with the projects. The Indian irrigation program oversees these projects delivering water to more than 25,000 users.

“Many ranchers and farmers, both Indian and non-Indian, still depend on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deliver water for their needs,” Barrasso said.

“Irrigation systems are critical economic components on a number of reservations throughout Indian country,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said. “Unfortunately, and what seems par for the course with a lot of tribal issues, we’ve never done a good job of ensuring tribes have the resources to make these irrigation systems successful.”

The Wind River Reservation in Barrasso’s home state of Wyoming is just one of the many projects, with others in Montana, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho – states as Barrasso pointed out have sitting Committee members.

“Chairman Barrasso, Vice-Chairman Tester and members of the committee, the funding from this bill is simply vital to our efforts,” said Mitchel T. Cottenoir, Tribal Water Engineer for the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes of Wind River Reservation. “We realize that only through our efforts, and yours, will this absolutely essential rehabilitation occur. Not only can we do this, we must do this. Chairman Barrasso, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes, the Wind River Water Resource Control Board and the Office of the Tribal Water Engineer strongly endorse S. 438, the Irrigation Rehabilitation and Renovation for Indian Tribal Governments and Their Economies Act or the IRRIGATE Act.”

“We would certainly encourage you to support this bill,” said Harry Labonde Jr., director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission. “I can tell you that when irrigators can’t get their water in the spring time or the summer months their crops do not flourish and as a result it is a significant impact on the reservation.”

Tester cautioned that fixing irrigation systems is only one part of the problem. He called for a plan to look at water projects and settlements in Indian country in a comprehensive manner.

“We cannot continue to authorize water settlements and water projects without a plan to fund them,” Tester said.

Charles Headdress Sr., Fort Peck Tribal Councilman, joined Labonde and Cottenoir in testifying before the committee, stating that agriculture is a top industry on the reservation. Pointing out that Fort Peck’s irrigation system has deferred maintenance costs of $12.7 million.

Tester has asked for more input from tribal governments and landowners that are directly affected by irrigation systems in Indian country.

“Careful management of water in Indian communities is essential if we are to ensure a reliable supply for the future. The IRRIGATE Act would bring the Indian irrigation projects into the 21st century,” Barrasso said. “The federal government’s promise to Indian country to build and maintain these projects needs to be fulfilled. This bill is a start in the right direction.”

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