It has been in the works for more than 30 years and in 2015 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will take over the Kerr Dam on the Flathead River southwest of Polson.
With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the tribes are now preparing to train dam operators and work with the dam’s current owner, PPL Montana, toward a smooth transition three years from now, according to Brian Lipscomb, director of CSKT’s Department of Energy.
The 541-foot long, 205-foot tall dam was built between 1930 and 1934 on tribal lands and, according to Lipscomb, the tribe originally opposed the construction because of its proximity to a culturally important site. Because the tribe didn’t have a formal government at the time it could not stop construction. The tribes have since looked for the next best option.
“Since its construction the tribe has had an eye on obtaining ownership,” Lipscomb said. “(The) second best option is we gain ownership and control it in the future.”
In 1985, when the dam’s original operating license was to expire, the tribe applied for a co-operating license issued by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission. That set into motion a deal for the tribe to purchase the dam from the current owner in 2015.
Now Lipscomb is tasked with preparing the tribe for ownership and operation of the dam, now just three years away. That preparation includes hiring and training dam engineers and operators.
“You don’t just go buy an operator at the grocery store,” Lipscomb said.
To prepare the workforce, Lipscomb said the tribe will get help from PPL Montana’s training and apprentice program.
“We definitely will help and assist the tribe in training operators,” said David Hoffman, director of external affairs for PPL Montana. “The tribe has been a partner since we bought the assets and we want to continue to work with them and make sure the transfer is as simple as possible.”
According to Hoffman, the power company pays the tribe $15 million annually to lease the land on which the dam is located. The deal to sell the dam to the tribe was made by the previous owner, Montana Power Co., and when PPL Montana purchased the company’s assets in 1999 it inherited the deal to sell.
While there are currently four people who work at the dam, Lipscomb said when the tribe takes over it will create 12 to 15 jobs because it will have to create a support system that already exists at PPL Montana because it operates other dams statewide.
“With that ownership there will be employment opportunities for tribe members,” Lipscomb said. “We don’t expect a lot of jobs, but they’ll be technical, high-paying jobs.”
Part of the U.S. Department of Energy grant, which was $475,000, will be used to hire and train people to work at the dam.
“The dam will sustain these jobs in the future and I’m pretty excited about that,” Lipscomb said.
He said the dam currently produces on average 1.1 million megawatt hours annually and when the tribe takes over he expects a gross profit of anywhere from $30 to $50 million annually.
Lipscomb said when the tribe finally does take over the dam, it will be realizing a long-held dream.
“It’s been a subject on the tribal council agenda for 80 years, so the tribal council and people are very excited at the prospect of owning this,” he said.
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