Testing the Waters

Emery Three Irons’ return to education results in improved health and water security on Crow Reservation.

Testing the Waters
Emery Three Irons, a Montana State University alum from the Land Resources and Environmental Sciences department, is the principal investigator for the GIS Watershed Project on the Crow Water Quality Project at Little Big Horn College. Three Irons collects water samples from a home with a well water system and samples from the Little Bighorn River in Crow Agency. / Photo by Adrián Sánchez-González, MSU News Service

This article was originally published by Four Points Press on January 20, 2022.

Emery Three Irons’ office is about three miles south of where he was raised in the town of Crow Agency. He is a lead geographic information systems analyst for the Crow Water Quality Project, working toward ensuring that every member of his community has access to clean and plentiful water.

From that perspective, the map of Three Irons’ journey seems small. But the path to where he is today is not the one he thought he would take. Growing up, the goal of completing a college degree had been constantly in the back of his mind, something he couldn’t shake. It seemed to him the best way to make a difference in the community he cares so much about.

Three Irons received an Associate of Science degree from Little Big Horn College and completed a year of study at MSU in 2003. But after that first year, he wasn’t sure his goal of earning a college diploma was meant to be. Struggles with alcohol had gotten in the way of his studies during what he remembers as a dark time. It was a detour on the map he hadn’t seen coming.

“After that first year, I didn’t think I was going to go back,” he said. “I finally came to the realization that the path I was on was either going to put me in jail or it was going to kill me. That goal of mine, of getting an education, was always there, even though it didn’t seem possible at times. It was always there.”

It was after eight years and the birth of his first son that Three Irons decided to take a second shot at his degree. With a child to set an example for, he made significant changes to his life. He recently marked 10 years of sobriety. A wildland firefighter for more than 15 of the intervening years since his initial experience at MSU, he had an interest in geography and maps; those interests guided him to the geospatial and environmental analysis program in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.

“January 1, 2012, we went back to Bozeman,” he remembers. “First semester back, I got all A’s. Made the dean’s list. After that, the goal was back on.”

While pursuing his studies, Three Irons was approached by Tracy Sterling, the head of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, about applying for the national Udall Scholarship. In 2014, Three Irons began working with the Crow Tribe conducting research on the number of fluent Crow speakers remaining on the reservation. Three Irons, whose first language is Crow, used GIS mapping technology to track geographic concentrations of fluent speakers on the reservation and update old data from the tribe. That research earned him the recognition of being the first Montana State Udall recipient in the award’s tribal policy category.

“Emery was the first Crow tribal member to complete the spatial sciences option in the LRES department,” said Mari Eggers, a researcher with the Crow Water Quality Project and a research assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology. “Emery is now taking on a leadership role to improve access to safe drinking water for rural and municipal community members, chairing a Tribal Water, Sanitation and Hygiene workforce and Apsáalooke Water and Wastewater Authority Board.”

After a 10-year break, Emery Three Irons returned to MSU where he became an award-winning scientist and scholar. He now leads an effort to bring clean drinking water to the Crow Indian Reservation. / Photo by Adrián Sánchez-González, MSU News Service
After a 10-year break, Emery Three Irons returned to MSU where he became an award-winning scientist and scholar. He now leads an effort to bring clean drinking water to the Crow Indian Reservation. / Photo by Adrián Sánchez-González, MSU News Service

Three Irons finished his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2015. He’d finally reached the goal that had been his focus for more than a dozen years. Going further had never even been on his mind, but that was before Eggers told him about how his experience and research acumen could help with research being done by the Crow Water Quality Project in collaboration with the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee.

The Crow Water Quality Project was created nearly 20 years ago after members of the Crow Tribe identified their highest-priority environmental community health concerns. Far and away the most pressing were water quality and access. Water contamination with toxins like manganese as well as coliform bacteria was widespread. Many homes, said Three Irons, still don’t have running water at all due to plumbing, electrical or well problems. Eggers thought Three Irons and his experience and research acumen could help the project.

“Emery is dedicated to and passionate about caring for the health and well-being of his fellow tribal members as well as tribal waters, lands, plants and animals,” Eggers said. “He will not only make a real difference in water security on the reservation, but I’m sure will also inspire our next generation of Crow environmental scientists.”

Three Irons spent his graduate studies testing water, analyzing water quality and identifying what factors increase risk of fecal contamination of home wells. While a graduate student he received a National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences graduate fellowship and was a Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership Scholar.

Today, more than two years after receiving his master’s degree in land resources and environmental sciences, he has helped to test home well water in more than 100 homes from the reservation border near Hardin to Wyola near the Wyoming border and focuses on improving water quality and providing reliable water access to every home.

“This is where I grew up; I have a connection here,” he said. “Not just with people, but with the land and the plants and living organisms, the animals. We have all those connections here and that’s what’s so special.”

Those connections stretched from the Crow reservation to the MSU campus in Bozeman.

“When I was first there, even in my undergrad, people were always there when I needed them,” he said. “I even brought my adviser, Dr. Scott Powell, to the reservation and let him see the study site. I wanted to let him see the reservation, what we were working on and how this place really is. When I hear of a student here wanting to go on for their education, I always ask them to consider Bozeman right away, because there’s always an advocate for you.”

As a Crow environmental scientist, Three Irons said he understands great things can happen when bringing traditional ways and western science together.

Three Irons’ oldest son is now 15. He has watched his father earn three college degrees, but his son wants to go one step further — he plans to pursue a doctorate. Three Irons’ path hasn’t been straight or easy, but he hopes that his own struggles have made his son’s experience easier.

“One of my goals right now is to provide water for all these homeowners. That’s the main goal,” Three Irons said. “Another is to see my son, whatever he picks, do something good and positive in the world.”

Three Irons also has a son who is 4 and a daughter who is 3, and he hopes to guide all his children onto a good path.

As he guides them, Three Irons said he keeps the following quote, source anonymous, at the top of his mind: “Work hard in silence, do what you have to do and ignore the drama and negativity surrounding you. Let your success be your noise.”

“(And) make a lot of noise,” Three Irons adds.

Sign up for Four Points Press, our free email newsletter

Get the latest headlines right in your inbox