The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council unanimously ratified its water compact with the state [December 29, 2020], clearing the path for rehabilitation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and return of the National Bison Range to tribal control.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes ratified their water compact with the state on Tuesday, ending a decades-long process to settle water right claims affecting a huge swath of Montana’s irrigated land.
The U.S. Congress ratified the compact — passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015 — last week as part of a massive appropriations bill. President Donald Trump signed the bill on Sunday, leaving ratification by the tribes as the final hurdle to finalizing the agreement.
The CSKT Tribal Council unanimously voted to ratify the agreement on Tuesday during a meeting held via Zoom.
With the tribes’ ratification, the federal government will create a $1.9 billion trust fund for repairing the deteriorating Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. Additionally, the tribes will regain control of the National Bison Range.
In exchange, the tribes agreed to relinquish claims to the vast majority of their off-reservation water rights claims, which could have limited irrigation in 51 of the state’s 85 adjudication basins. The CSKT had filed thousands of claims based on the tribes’ 1855 Hellgate Treaty with the federal government, by which the tribe retained the right to hunt and fish in traditional locations both on and off the present-day Flathead Reservation in exchange for ceding more than 20 million acres of land.
A tribal spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. But after Congress approved the compact last week, CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said during a press conference that the agreement would have a “profound and positive impact on the future of the Flathead Reservation for the next century.”
The compact had languished since Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced legislation to ratify it in 2016. Montana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Steve Daines, introduced a bill late last year, co-sponsored by Tester, to finalize the compact.
Groups including the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Agricultural Business Association and Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators have said finalizing the compact would offer certainty for irrigators, protect the state’s water and help avoid years of costly litigation…
On Tuesday, another tribal attorney, Rhonda Swaney, encouraged the Tribal Council itself to ratify the compact in order to prevent any attempts by “outside entities” to further challenge the agreement, pointing to the Republican legislators’ letter to Daines as an example.
To understand, and possibly predict what happens after a river’s headwaters goes up in flames, researchers are descending on newly created burn scars across the West to gather data in the hopes of lessening some of the impacts on drinking water systems.
On a sunny winter morning, a team of researchers led by Colorado State University hydrologist Stephanie Kampf roamed through the steep drainage of Tunnel Creek, a tributary to the Poudre River. Much of the creek burned this summer and fall during the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado…
For more than an hour and a half, Kampf’s team searched for a flat spot to construct a temporary weather station. The university received a National Science Foundation grant to put instruments into the field quickly, before snows began to accumulate in the burned area. At more than 208,000 acres, the burn scar is the state’s largest on record.
The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County burned down to the shore of Willow Creek Reservoir, one of the lakes in Northern Water’s collection system in Grand County. Dec. 13, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith
Smoke from the Mullen Fire along the Wyoming-Colorado border as seen from the Snowy Range in Wyoming on Oct. 6. Photo/Allen Best
The Grizzly Creek Fire jumped Grizzly Creek north of Glenwood Canyon. (Provided by the City of Glenwood Springs)
Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by alighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.
Two other nearby fires broke size records in 2020 as well. In late October the East Troublesome Fire exploded near the headwaters of the Colorado River, burning 193,812 acres, killing two people and causing thousands to flee their homes. To the north, the Mullen Fire on the Colorado-Wyoming border topped out at 176,878 acres. Downstream on the Colorado River, the Grizzly Creek Fire torched 32,631 acres in and around Glenwood Canyon. And in the Book Cliffs north of Grand Junction, Colorado, the Pine Gulch Fire burned nearly 140,000 acres.
In the case of Cameron Peak, which acts as the headwaters for the Poudre River, Kampf and her colleagues want to know: what happens to the snow that falls on a burned area this high in elevation and this big?
“Some of these streams have burned so much, like the whole riparian zone is burned. And so there’s nothing alive at all,” Kampf said…
Existing research shows fires can affect snowpack in different ways. With fewer trees, and without their full, bushy branches, more snow tends to accumulate on the ground. Snow that’s caught in trees often blows off or turns immediately to vapor. So when a wildfire moves through a forest, scientists say to expect more snow to pile up on the ground.
But the lack of tree cover also causes that accumulated snow to behave differently. Without a shaded canopy above it, the snow is more exposed to the sun, and in the spring, melting can become erratic. Mid-winter melting can occur, which means a lessened runoff come spring.
These general findings can change, depending on the type of forest that burned, the direction the burned slope is facing, and the severity of the burn in that area…
Studies of dust on snow have shown its dramatic effect on the timing of snowmelt. The same is true of snow that’s been mixed with charred debris and smoke particles, [Anne] Nolin said. “All that black guck on the snow makes it melt a lot faster,” she said.
A mis-matched timing of snowmelt makes the job of reservoir management much harder, Nolin said. Many water providers use long-term models to gauge when to release and store water. A burned drainage area makes those historical data less reliable…
With water supply margins already tight in many portions of the West, Boisrame said, water providers, agriculturalists and environmental groups are realizing, “that we actually need to know” the detailed effects of how each individual burn scar will affect the water cycle.
That’s because no two fires are alike. Depending on weather and fuel loads, each fire burns a landscape with varying severity. And that severity matters, not just for forest recovery, but also for water quality immediately following it, said Ben Livneh, a University of Colorado-Boulder engineering professor.
“The most severe impacts actually come from moderate severity fires,” Livneh said.
In fires with lots of high severity burn, much of the vegetation is completely combusted. Dissolved organic carbon can be one of the biggest headaches for water treatment facilities following a fire. Treating it can also result in byproducts found to be carcinogenic, Livneh said. But if there’s not much organic material left in a burned area — because it all burned — it doesn’t cause as many problems.
“And so maybe somewhat counterintuitively, the most severe fires aren’t necessarily the most damaging, at least from a water treatment and water quality perspective,” Livneh said.
Research has shown too that forest management can play a big role in lessening the impacts of fire on water systems. The Desert Research Institute’s Boisrame looked closely at one creek in Yosemite National Park. In that watershed, land managers have been more hands-off with fire suppression, and allowed smaller fires to burn more frequently…
One hurdle in understanding the relationship of burn scars and snowpack is that it’s a challenge to get good data from such dynamic environments. Landslides and floods after a fire can destroy scientific instruments.
That was top of mind for Colorado State University’s Kampf as she traversed the Cameron Peak burn scar. Finding a site for a weather station is like looking for a proper campsite. Researchers want something flat, on stable ground and free from large hazards like falling rocks and trees. That’s often hard to find in a recently burned forest…
The weather station along Tunnel Creek will be compared to another site untouched by fire. Other stations will look at impacts at higher and lower elevations. They’re likely to collect data on soil moisture, solar radiation and precipitation for the next three to four years, Kampf said, though long-term funding hasn’t yet been secured.