Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Idaho National Laboratory begin irrigation modernization case study

July 3, 2023

By Michelle Goff

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is partnering with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to modernize the Fort Hall, Idaho-based irrigation system. INL, along with partners at Pacific National Northwest Laboratory, will support this effort, funded by the Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office. To forge the partnership, INL staff members held a series of meetings with the Fort Hall Business Council, tribal technical staff, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fort Hall Irrigation Project.     

people in a meeting
INL researchers chatting with Tribal representatives about the irrigation system on Fort Hall.

The partnership will establish a case study for the Fort Hall Irrigation Project that will evaluate ways to modernize, update and maximize efficiency. The INL team and tribal staff members will evaluate data from the irrigation system and refine an INL software program called IrrigationViz to meet the Tribes’ needs.  

The study will help identify areas or envision possibilities where modernizing the system could maximize benefits. The goal is not new construction or system upgrades. The ongoing case study will include engagement meetings between technical tribal staff members and tribal policymakers.  

Shots of the Fort Hall water system.

“This partnership is very important for both the Tribes and INL,” said Cleve Davis, a geospatial data scientist with INL and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. “Not only will it be an excellent opportunity to include a federally recognized tribe for an irrigation modernization case study, but it will also strengthen the existing partnership between the INL and the Tribes.” 

Last spring, a team from INL met with technical staff from the Tribes’ Water Resources and Fish & Wildlife Departments and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to tour the Fort Hall Irrigation Project. This visit helped the INL team understand the Tribes’ current operations and irrigation needs.  

Shots of the Fort Hall water system.

Vital considerations for the team to keep in mind include:  

Providing water to promote both agriculture and ecosystem resiliency. 

Off-setting costs. 

Sustaining traditional cultural uses. 

Using renewable energies and technologies.  

Providing equitable access to irrigation water by members of the Tribes.   

Except for some ground water pumping in the Michaud Flats region of the reservation, most of the irrigation system relies on surface water diversion from the Snake River and its tributaries. 

water system
Shots of the Fort Hall water system.

Initially, the Fort Hall Irrigation Project was established by the United States as part of early Native American assimilation policy to convert Fort Hall tribal members into farmers. Over time, its use has changed from strictly agricultural to include commercial and residential.  

Today, the Tribes exercise their self-determination sovereignty by thinking about how irrigation water can also be used to support energy and water security for future generations and to enhance the Snake River ecosystem. Thus, the cultural, ecological and environmental aspects are important considerations of the Fort Hall irrigation modernization case study.  

“The water rights for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are some of the earliest in the state of Idaho,” Davis said. “The Tribes have a long-standing tradition of favoring negotiation as a means of resolving conflicts and had the foresight to settle their reserved water rights in the 1990 Fort Hall Indian Water Rights Agreement. The air, water and land are incredibly important to the Tribes, and we are looking forward to seeing how INL can help the Tribes achieve their goals for water management.” 

This case study will be the beginning of a larger INL and PNNL effort to engage in irrigation modernization support in rural communities.  


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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted July 3, 2023

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