Wednesday, June 17, 2020


Stealing a river is not easy!  But once you steal it, you’ve got to maintain it because you have created what amounts to a “border nation” that pulls in two countries, states, provinces, reserves and reservations, to say nothing of mini-ecologies every place the new watercourse leaks.  In dry places that have acquired a steady feed of water, the plants and animals will move right in.  Use the watercourse of siphons, drops and canals for supporting an endangered species and you can’t stop the water without killing the species, like “bull trout”.

“The Milk River Project is an irrigation project authorized in 1903 intended to supply the Lower Milk River valley with water for irrigation. The St. Mary's diversion dams, canals, drops, and siphon were completed in in 1917 and still remain in-use today.”

“GREAT FALLS — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said in a news release that on Sunday, May 17, a concrete drop structure failed on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project at St. Mary Canal, northwest of Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The agency says that when the damage was reported, the canal was flowing approximately 200 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) which is about 1/3 of the canal’s total capacity of approximately 600 CFS. No injuries were reported, and canal flows have been shut off.”

In the early days very little attention was paid to the legal technicalities of using Blackfeet assets, partly because the white big shots were depending on secrecy to keep the tribal people from knowing what was happening.  Most of them in 1903 were not readers. That was the year that my father-in-law came to Browning where he would found the Browning Merc.  It was also the year the last old-time Blackfeet chief died, though there's argument about who that was.

Everyone assumed that “Indians” were dying out and wouldn’t be in existence to argue.  No one even thought of charging for access to Marias Pass which was on the rez or for the land, grass, or wood the railroad took.  (A small “use tax” was deducted in the form of horses that disappeared.)

Human survival is anchored in three abilities: to consciously and unconsciously alter behavior when the conditions of the environment change; to create ways of self-protection from special clothing (even space suits) or structures; or to change the environment itself.  As our ability to move earth and build dams grow constantly bigger, we can do amazing things.  In China the new irrigation projects are so massive that they slightly but actually tip the planet on its axis.

The Milk River diversion is much smaller but the railroad badly needed to have people living where they would travel and ship by rail.  No one could build towns or ranches there without water.  I don’t know what the arrangements with Canada were to bring the Milk River to the American side, whether money was paid and to whom.  They probably will not withstand close examination.  At the time there was a fierce competition to make both countries ocean-to-ocean so that the Canadian rail line was trying to beat the Great Northern on the US side.  I don’t know whether there are books about this in border studies, but there ought to be.  In the end this diversion essentially created a new composite country on both sides of the parallel.

The nature of those legalities of the Milk River diversion, which passes through other rezzes as well as the Blackfeet, were made when there was still lots of water and ranches were small family operations.  Today we are reaching water limits and ranches tend to be vast areas owned and run by corporations using major machinery, aiming at foreign buyers.  They can control Congress.  The passenger element of this rail line was just now cancelled due, they say, to the pandemic, but they’ve been trying to close it down for years despite subsidies.  They would like it to be freight only.

The weakness of the Rule of Law is in changing reality over time.  But it can be rewritten to accommodate new terms.  What once seemed resourceful in a time when the Blackfeet were a small stunned survival group dominated by local white big shots like Sherburne and the Indian Agents -- and when immigrants from a war-torn and overcrowded Europe were willing to take on the hard labor of dry land farming for the benefit of railroad tycoons -- is now preposterous.  Some people have suggested that the best future might be to forget about the Milk River diversion and turn the land back to the bison who were adapted to it.

As soon as the siphon/canal/fall complex was built, especially in the places where there were leaks, trails formed along it, using it as a road guide.  A lacework formed of places for small animals to burrow under or larger places where deer could crawl through.  Since there was profit in crossing from one nation to the other, particularly for drugs or alcohol, there were human-caused paths.  Law enforcement never quite caught up, even with drones and small plane overflights.

These sorts of projects include far more than dollar and cents rationalizations.  In fact, sentiment and clinging to the past may be the more powerful force. But the railroad is not so powerful now, we have a lot less respect for transportation moguls driving settlement and population growth, and we are far less likely to want to impose irrigation on high and dry prairie.  The relations between Canada and the US have changed.  The border is technically closed during the pandemic.  The biggest change of all is that now the tribal people can read, research what papers and requirements were framed up, and demand that they be observed, even if they turn out to be leases instead of land ownership changes.

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