Monday October 23, 2023


Water is hard to come by on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, and it has been for a long time. The Chippewa Cree tribe members who live on this reservation in north-central Montana get most of their water from a thin underground aquifer that is insufficiently replenished by occasional rainfall, and they’ve been under some form of water restriction for several decades. There’s only enough groundwater for cooking and hygiene, so residents aren’t allowed to water their yellowing lawns or run sprinklers. It’s illegal to operate a car wash.

“It’s been in place for most of my life,” said Ted Whitford, the director of the tribe’s water resources department. “And if we get a water main break on our main line, what happens is it drains the tanks, and pretty much puts everyone that’s on that system out of water.”

When the tribe reached a deal to obtain water rights for the reservation in 1997, the federal government agreed to pipe in water from a reservoir on the Marias River, almost 60 miles away, replacing the aquifer water. But for more than 20 years, that project proceeded at a crawl, with the government spending only enough money each year to build a small portion of the pipeline. In the meantime, the reservation’s water problems grew more dire with every spell of drought. 

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