Washakie Reservoir ran out of water early this year, leading tribes to call for the replacement of the BIA irrigation manager. (WyoFile photo/Ron Feemster)

Washakie Reservoir runs out of water early again, tribes blame BIA

By Ron Feemster
August 6, 2013

 For the second year in a row, the Washakie Reservoir on the Wind River Indian Reservation is empty long before the irrigation season ends for farmers and ranchers downstream.

After turning on the water two weeks late in mid-May and turning it off by August 1, about 60 days before the irrigation season normally ends, the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut the five-month irrigation season in half. Last year, the season ended early as well, according to James Pogue, a water technician who works for the tribal water engineer.

“There’s just not adequate water supply this year,” said Mitch Cottenoir, the tribal water engineer. “It’s been drought conditions.”

And while it is true that the reservoir is nearly empty, that the Wind River peaks behind it are bare of snow, and that temperatures reached the 90s for much of July, tribal leaders are also furious with the BIA for the management practices of Brent Allen, a BIA employee and the Irrigation Manager of the Wind River Irrigation Project.

In a letter to Ed Parisian, the regional director of the BIA in Billings, the Joint Business Council of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes called for the removal of Allen.

“The Joint Business Council is convinced that Mr. Allen is unwilling or unable to cooperate with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes, the Wind River Water Resources Control Board, the Office of the Tribal Water Engineer and the irrigators of the Wind River Irrigation Project,” the JBC wrote.

The letter is dated May 8, 2013, a week after the irrigation season normally begins and a week before Allen turned on the water for irrigators downstream from the dam.

The JBC’s letter holds Allen responsible for the early end of the 2012 irrigation season for irrigators depending on the Washakie Reservoir and chides him for failing to properly manage the fish screens that keep trout in the Little Wind River and out of the irrigation ditches.

Allen took a phone call from WyoFile but declined to comment on the irrigation issues, referring calls to the Billings, Mont., office of the BIA. The BIA took calls but declined to speak on the record.

Cottenoir, the tribal water engineer, acknowledged issues in addition to the drought conditions.

“There are management things that we can refine,” he said. “We are going to work closely with the BI in the off season to see what we can do to improve the system.”

“It cost us $150,000 last year, and this year it will be $100,000,” said Dwayne Oldham, who raises hay to feed cattle within the Wind River Irrigation District. “We sold 100 cows and weaned calves early last year.”

Like other farmers and ranchers in the area, Oldham complained of irregular water flow. Water was released at the wrong time, he said, so that water flowed by his gates when he could not use it. He attributes this waste of water, and his dry pastureland, to poor communication by BIA.

“We need a better cooperative effort with the water board, Fish and Wildlife and the BIA,” Oldham said.

Dick Baldes inspects a headgate that the BIA did not repair in time for water to get to his fields. (WyoFile photo/Ron Feemster — Click to enlarge)

Dick Baldes, a retired Fish and Wildlife employee who raises horses on a tribal allotment in addition to fee and leased land near the Sacajawea gravesite, puts it very bluntly:

“The BIA is just irresponsible,” he said. Baldes points to the green and yellow stripes in his hay fields and blames the BIA — and Brent Allen — for not properly repairing a head gate on his land in time to access the water he needed to fully irrigate his fields.

The BIA installed a new head gate about one foot higher than the old one, Baldes said, which means that his low water mark is a foot higher and more water flows unused past the gate.

Shortly before the season, the BIA replaced the head gate and a 12-inch pipe behind it with a 15-inch pipe. Baldes had to find an adapter to make the new pipe fit his 12-inch irrigation pipes. He was not ready when the water began to flow.

“You can see where there was no time to get water to the whole field,” he said. “Some of it is green, some if it is not.” Baldes said that without water in August he would not get a second cutting of hay.

Construction on the Wind River Irrigation District began about 100 years ago, making it one of the older systems in the West. Many canals on the reservation are not lined, so that water often seeps out into unwanted locations.

Baldes and one of the local ditch riders walked another part of his fields, where seepage from a canal more than 200 yards away leaves the hay too wet to cut. They traced the leak to a general area, but do not know where exactly the canal needs to be repaired.

Baldes says poorly maintained irrigation infrastructure flooded parts of his fields while leaving other areas starved for water. (WyoFile photo/Ron Feemster — Click to enlarge)

Baldes says he has asked BIA for help and received no response. To salvage some value from that field, Baldes will turn horses out to graze.

The issues vexing Baldes and Oldham are not unique. Several irrigators who spoke to WyoFile but would not use their names complain of too much early water and not enough warning before water arrives. Some say that other parties in the system get preferential treatment. But so far there is little data to support any of these claims.

The other wildcard is the weather, which has been extreme in the past four years. 2010 and 2011 were flood years, when water spilled over the top of the dam. The next two summers were hot and dry.

“If that’s not an erratic weather pattern, I don’t know what one is,” said Pogue.

A source close to the controversy says the BIA has replied to the tribes’ letter about Brent Allen, but that letter has not yet been made available to WyoFile. Relations between the tribes and the BIA remain strained.

In the short term, no one appears to have a better plan than Cottenoir, the tribal water engineer. His suggestion: “Pray for rain.”

— 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 ron@wyofile.com.

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