Reviving traditional Apsáalooke water sources

Tribal scientists and community members are testing wells, solving plumbing problems and delivering clean water to their neighbors.

High Country News
4 min readAug 6, 2021


Emery Three Irons at his family home along the Little Bighorn River. Brandon Yadegari Moreno/High Country News

Emery Three Irons, a Crow tribal member, stood in tall, lush grass one day in late May, contemplating a cream-colored house. After 20 minutes of reflection, he approached two 5-year-olds standing on the front steps, eating popsicles and playing with a puppy. “Is your grandpa awake?” he asked them, his soft voice barely rising above the thrum of the nearby interstate. “Go ask him, Ivan,” the girl said to the boy. “No, you go ask him,” the boy responded, before they both disappeared into the house.

Three Irons followed them into the living room to meet with Everette Walks, an Apsáalooke grandfather. Walks’ house is on the Apsáalooke, or Crow, Nation in Montana, not far from the Wyoming border. While the kids played hide-and-seek, Three Irons peered underneath the kitchen sink and surveyed a set of exposed pipes, speaking with Walks in the Apsáalooke language about connecting one of the property’s two wells to a working pump. For three months, Walks, who works nights at the Rosebud Mine at Colstrip, his wife, Kim, and their grandchildren had lived in the house without running water. When Kim broke her arm a few months ago, she had to have surgery. “Not having water makes it harder,” Everette said.

The visit was part of a new project for Three Irons, a GIS analyst for the Crow Water Quality Project, a group of scientists from Little Big Horn College and Montana State University working to improve access to clean water on the Crow Nation. Early this summer, he began conducting home assessments in rural areas, troubleshooting ways to install potable running water in the many houses that lack plumbing.

Until the 1960s, the Little Bighorn River was the main source of water for the Crow Nation. But pollution from upstream farms contaminated the river, forcing many families to switch to well water. The Little Bighorn still provides municipal water to Crow Agency, the Crow Nation’s government headquarters, but the tribe’s water rights are junior to those of some non-Native farmers in the area. During the growing season, much of the river is diverted for agriculture, some through a federal system of canals that waters local alfalfa, wheat and sugar beet fields. Extensive withdrawals have left the river ankle-deep in the summer, causing dangerously high levels of nutrients along with periodic town-wide water restrictions.

Three Irons had just graduated from college with a degree in geospatial and environmental analysis in 2015 when leaders of the Crow Water Quality Project approached him and asked him to undertake a graduate project studying well water contamination and spring water quality. He agreed immediately; he grew up along the banks of the Little Bighorn River and wanted to use his education to help his community. Now, Three Irons and his colleagues are combining scientific, cultural and community-centered approaches to revive the traditional water sources of the Crow Tribe. “Water is life,” he said, quoting a popular slogan. “They’re not lying, even though it’s cheesy and seems like a common saying.”

IN EARLY FEBRUARY, THE CROW TRIBE reached an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on a new water system that would supply treated water from the Bighorn River to all tribal communities. The plan was first outlined in the Crow Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2010, which also included legislation to improve irrigation infrastructure for farmers. Since then, the agency has completed a couple dozen irrigation projects. No progress has been made on the new water system, however. Shane Schieck, the Bureau of Reclamation supervisor for the project, said the delay was partly caused by high turnover among principal engineers. But it’s also because the agency’s irrigation projects are “low-hanging fruit,” he said — smaller, less complex and easier to build than an 800-mile water system.

Under the new agreement, the federal government will begin laying pipes and building a treatment facility within the next five years. “We will be that much closer to delivering clean water across our lands,” wrote Crow Tribal Chairman Frank White Clay in an email to High Country News. “Having ready access to it will be a game changer for thousands of our people across the reservation.” But while this should provide clean water for Crow families, the river itself will remain under threat. And some who grew up here, like Three Irons, question the feasibility of connecting all six of the reservation’s political districts — which span 2.3 million acres — to a single master water system.

After visiting the Walkses’ house in May, Three Irons stopped by his childhood home. He sat near his family’s sweat lodge, next to the Little Bighorn’s slow, snaking currents and gangly cottonwood trees. He recalled submerging himself in its waters, watching over the sweat lodge as a child, seeing it burn down one day and, eventually, rebuilding it. Because the river is polluted, his family no longer brings water up from its banks for the sweat lodge; instead, they lug it down from the house. The new ritual is tinged with the knowledge of what the river is now, compared to what it has been and the uncertainty of what’s to come. “I offer prayers in the morning, even in the office,” Three Irons said. “Not only for my family, but for the well-being of tribal members here. I pray that we find a solution, or else we’re able to figure out how to provide them with water at the current moment — not five years from now.”

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