What seems to be a federal agency’s final deadline for a tribal irrigation system formed by two indigenous tribes to pay the agency or face an interruption of the irrigation service provided to the tribes seems hollow since the tribes operate the irrigation system and will continue operating it even if the bill is not paid, the manager of that system told The Driller.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) owns or is interested in irrigation projects located on or associated with various Indian reservations throughout the U.S. The BIA must establish irrigation assessment rates to recover the costs of administering, operating, maintaining, and rehabilitating these projects, as the BIA says in its notice, “Rate Adjustments for Indian Irrigation Projects.”

The BIA proposes to adjust the irrigation operation and maintenance assessment rate at the Duck Valley Irrigation Project (DVIP) managed by the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes from $5.30 to $11 per acre, the BIA notice says. The DVIP sends water from the Owyhee River to about 30,000 acres on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, said Pawan Upadhyay, Water Resources Director for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.

However, the BIA said if the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes allow the annual bill owed to BIA to become past due, it could affect the tribe’s water delivery, said the bureau, which added “We will not provide you irrigation service until your bill is paid,” but that it will provide irrigation services to the tribes if payment arrangements are made.

The BIA’s notice says, “If we do not receive payment before the close of business on the 30th day after the due date stated on the bill, we will send a past due notice to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.

Any “past due notice will have additional information concerning the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes’ rights. We will consider the past due notice as delivered no later than five business days after the day we mail it.”

Furthermore, “If the bill becomes more than 90 days past due, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes will be assessed a penalty charge of no more than 6 percent per year, which accrues from the date the bill became past due.” Each time the BIA tries “to collect the past due bill, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes will be charged an administrative fee of $12.50 for processing and handling.

However, the DVIP will continue providing irrigation water even if the bill is not paid to the BIA because “the tribes operate” the irrigation system, said Upadhyay, who added the BIA “doesn't have direct employees operating the irrigation system, it is tribal employees who are there.”  

The Shoshone-Paiute Tribes pay the employees’ wages, pay for the equipment, supplies, and vehicles needed, and pay the costs of operating the irrigation system, said Upadhyay, who added even if the tribes make that payment to the BIA, the BIA gives it right back to the tribe rather than to a third-party operator “because it is the tribe that operates the irrigation system.”

The BIA did not respond to requests for an interview on the planned adjustment to the irrigation operation and maintenance assessment rate at DVIP.

In addition, Upadhyay stressed that the water supports the agricultural facilities on the reservation, specifically ranching, which is the main economic activity and the primary source of income for the reservation’s residents. “The ranches are their livelihood, and they depend on that water,” he said.

The BIA is accepting comments from the tribes on the proposed rate adjustment. The deadline to file comments is July 5, 2024.

Read the BIA notice: “Rate Adjustments for Indian Irrigation Projects