Friday, June 12, 2020


Before there were maps and land “ownership” there was geology, mostly rivers and mountains without understanding the plate tectonics that created them.  The whole center of the United States is based on the crease in the continent that was created when the Rockies were pushed hard against everything to the East.  Then the melting glaciers found that declivity and traced it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, changing its route as it eroded the land and sustained earthquakes.

Humans are always trying to capture and control the world around them, but water is impossible to completely capture and when it escapes, it creates havoc.  But we need it, we have to keep it and own it somehow.  The Rule of Law about waterways -- moving water -- is that the “ownership” begins at the farthest beginnings of the stream and then is ordered by the uses, earliest uses given priority.  In theory.  Largest profits at stake, politically, is actual priority.

Another edge of the watershed that became the Louisiana Purchase is what is now designated the 49th parallel,  geologically a rough line of high ground called a "divide", marked by volcanically created hills that on the north side mark the watershed of Hudson’s Bay.  Sweetgrass, Old Man on his Back, Bear’s Paw, Cypress.  The massive glaciers slowed and went around, creating refuges for both plants and animals.  When Jefferson bought the Mississipian basin that ran through Louisiana, he knew none of this — not even at which parallel it ended, which is why he sent Lewis and Clark to find out and why — when they saw the high ground — they named their camp “Disappointment.”  They had estimated the 50th parallel was the limit.

Trickles of water began on high ground when the climate was warm enough, then gathered and grew until they formed a mighty river.  People like the original man named Cobell, crossed the Atlantic as ship crew and transferred to the steam-driven paddlewheelers to travel on up Mark Twain’s river, struggling past floating trees, sandbars and hostile people until they reached the Great Falls created by a "major intracontinental shear zone between the Hearne craton and Wyoming craton basement rock of the Archean Eon which form part of the North American continent."  Big boats could not pass. Smaller ones went as far as Fort Benton, which was the first Blackfeet Agency and a hot spot for trade and fights.

All of this controlled history, but the real commodification after beaver hides was irrigation, the dams and canals that throughout human history have controlled crops.  A schism developed between the reservations, who never really grasped the industrial uses, and the dryland farmers and ranchers who tried to follow the rain, scarce on the east side of the Rockies.  Efforts to get something on paper were stronger when pump-driven industrial irrigation began, the pumps and sprays of “Rainbirds” that rotated on wheels across the land.

This was the story in the local newspaper:


Blackfeet Water Compact approved by a landslide By JOHN MCGILL Glacier Reporter Editor Apr 26, 2017 
Poll workers at BCC reported seeing a steady stream of voters in last week’s historic referendum vote on the Blackfeet Water Compact.  Blackfeet Tribal Members weighed in on the Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act last Thursday, April 20, with 1,894 voting in favor of the deal with 631 voting against it in certified results. A total of 2,525 members voted in the referendum, which is about 19.3% of the members, 18 and older, who might have voted. However, it should be noted that 6,659 members live off-reservation and were required to come back to the Blackfeet Reservation to participate. A total of 172 off-reservation voters returned to participate, leaving 6,487 who did not make the journey home to vote. Leaving the remainder out of the equation, the potential number of voters declines to 6,570, raising the rate of participation to a bit more than 38%.
“This is a momentous occasion,” Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes said. “As Tribal Chairman I’m absolutely proud of the Amskapi Pikuni to step up and do the right thing. Now, we’re in the process of prioritizing; we’ve crossed a great threshold for a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.”

The Tribe’s approval was the final element needed for the compact to become effective. Montana ratified it in 2009, and Congress provided federal approval in December. The compact will provide the Tribe with $422 million in federal funding and $49 million in state funding for water-related infrastructure projects on the Reservation. The money will be available to the Tribe over a number of years and will support projects such as new or improved irrigation systems, development of community water systems, development and management of fisheries, and land acquisition.

“I’m proud to be a part of an agreement that’s going to have long lasting benefits for the Tribe and the Blackfeet people,” said Jerry Lunak, Water Resources Director of the Blackfeet Nation.

Next, the Blackfeet Nation will be working to fully implement the settlement, including development of a community-based plan for infrastructure projects and future development in communities with input from its tribal members.

This is a link to the actual document.  

How it all works out depends on the design and funding of infrastructure which is influenced by both culture and politics.  But the biggest influence is still the ecosystem itself and how it continues to change as the climate shifts into new patterns.  As survivors of the Big Flood know, there is risk in change.  People in other places dependent on run-off from mountain snowpack as in the Alps or the Himalayas are suddenly realizing that their ability to persist is as threatened by diminishing snowpack run-off as island countries are threatened by rising sea level.  The earth will not stand still.  It is up to us to dance with it.

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