Drawing life from Kerr Dam

For the last 25 years, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have squirreled away funds, hoping to one day own the Flathead Valley's Kerr Dam. Now, with five years left in a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission co-management agreement, it looks like the tribes will finally reach their goal in 2015.

The dam, a 194-megawatt hydroelectric plant on the Flathead River west of Polson, produces an estimated 1.1 billion kilowatt hours of power annually.

"We've been preparing for it for a long time," says CSKT Tribal Councilman Steve Lozar. "Since 1985, we've been putting hard tribal dollars—money we earn on our own with our other enterprises—aside to make the purchase outright in 2015."

The dam was constructed in 1938. CSKT has collected land lease payments for the structure since then and, when PPL Montana obtained Kerr Dam in 1985, the tribes were brought in as partners in the operation.

Lozar declined to comment on PPL's asking price, as the sale remains in negotiations. But he did say the tribe's idea of the plant's worth and PPL's offer are "quite different." And while the purchase will come with some downsides—inheritance of intense flood control and energy production responsibilities as well as loss of annual lease payments—sole ownership of Kerr Dam will be a monumental change for the Flathead Reservation.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"We have a tribal tradition of essentially drawing life culturally from the river," Lozar says. "And even though we didn't, in the 1930s, want that dam built, in a lot of ways it still will be a lifeline to the tribes. Rather than simply giving us fish and solace, [the river] will give us electricity to sell and solace...To be able to generate power that is clean really fits our world view."

CSKT has taken a number of steps over the years in preparation for purchase negotiations. One of those was hiring Brian Lipscomb, former Columbia River Basin coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to head the tribes' Department of Energy.

Lozar says the tribes have two additional steps to take this year, both critical to preparing for Kerr Dam ownership. Future CSKT dam operators must start a four-year "apprenticeship" at other PPL-owned facilities to make the operational transition "seamless." The tribes are also in the process of "staffing up the administration part of our department of energy," Lozar says, "which will ultimately spin into an energy company." They hope to have that staffing completed by late fall, he says.

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