With a recent $475,000 federal grant, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are ramping up for a long-awaited 2015 acquisition of Kerr Dam in northwest Montana.
The tribes competed nationally for $6.3 million in Department of Energy grant money that was awarded to 31 tribal projects across the country on July 21. The grants are aimed at funding strategic energy plans, tribal member skill building and energy efficiency improvements.
The Salish and Kootenai plan to use $275,000 for a feasibility study to assess energy efficiency improvement projects and implement energy conservation measures in existing tribal facilities, plus $200,000 to help fund the development of an organizational structure that will support the acquisition of Kerr Dam and the tribes’ subsequent operation of the dam.
“These funds will be used to support the hiring of key positions for a tribally operated wholesale power-generation corporation including staff for marketing the energy and hydropower engineering,” said Brian Lipscomb, director of the CSKT Department of Energy.
Lipscomb said 12 to 18 highly-skilled positions will be created to operate the dam and market its power.
“Four years is not a very long time in this world so we are starting to staff up now,” he said.
Kerr Dam was built on tribal lands by a subsidiary of the Montana Power Co. in 1934 at a bend in the Flathead River flowing downstream from Flathead Lake. It was one of the first hydroelectric dams in the country to be licensed by the federal government, with a 50-year term that arranged for lease payments to the tribes because “it’s on tribal land and it uses tribal resources,” Lipscomb said.
Since then, tribal leaders have strived to acquire the dam. The tribes filed a license application competing against Montana Power Co. in 1976, prior to the first license’s expiration in 1980.
That led to a nine-year dispute that ended with a negotiated settlement in 1985 with a new 50-year license that included provisions for tribal co-management of the dam and an option for the tribes to acquire the dam for the final 20 years of the license term, starting in 2015.
“The tribes are grateful for the assistance in building the needed capacity for operation of Kerr Dam. The tribal acquisition will be complete in 2015,” CSKT Council Chairman E.T. “Bud” Moran said. “Since the construction of Kerr Dam in 1934, generations of tribal leaders strived for the dam’s acquisition. The return of the complex means a return of the tribes’ control over primary homeland resources, which already include Flathead Lake and the Lower Flathead River. These resources will generate significant economic contributions for decades.”
Lipscomb said the tribes have been saving for the anticipated acquisition of the dam since 1985.
The dam currently is operated by PPL Montana, which estimated in 2010 it will be worth $55 million by 2015.
“Now we’re in the process of verifying that estimate,” Lipscomb said, adding that an updated estimate is expected in 2012.