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Officials meet for infrastructure discussion

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POLSON — On Wednesday, Nov. 17, officials from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Lake County and the Montana Department of Transportation sat down at the Polson Red Lion Inn to discuss infrastructure concerns regarding Lake County roads.

Also joining the conversation were Montana Lt. Governor Kristen Juras and Director of Indian Affairs Misty Kuhl.

With the passage and implementation of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act (MWRPA) back in December 2020, the MWRPA permits the tribes to carry out specified activities related to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project (FIIP), such as rehabilitating structures, upgrading irrigation facilities and restoring streams that are affected by such projects.

According to documents provided by Lake County, the county currently has 1,403 culverts and 68 bridges, the majority of which are infrastructure of the FIIP where it crosses and intersects with county maintained roadways.

Discussions focused on questions and concerns regarding the ownership and maintenance obligations of infrastructure under the MWRPA for which the county has historically been responsible for.

“I think at some point taxpayers will begin to question the use of taxpayer dollars to replace structures that they maybe do not own,” said Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker.

The county has requested a legal opinion from the office of the Montana Attorney General regarding ownership, responsibility for maintenance and repair of FIIP infrastructure.

As the county waits for a definitive answer, county commissioners offered a cooperative proposal to CSKT officials for their approval during last Wednesday’s meeting.

“This just starts the thought process,” said Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron. “This is a very draft framework of a possible agreement between CSKT and Lake County to keep the bridges safe and the roads open.” 

Also addressed during the meeting were current road projects and possible funding opportunities for future projects by accessing different avenues of funding not currently available to both groups. 

Another infrastructure meeting has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15. Location has yet to be determined.

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