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Canal cleaning, appeal discussed at meeting

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ST. IGNATIUS – The Flathead Joint Board of Control heard from the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project manager, talked about a legal appeal, decided to carry insurance on a new employee; and one seat was left empty on the board.

The Wednesday, March 15, meeting started out with a report from FIIP Manager Pete Plant. Thirty- eight people are employed by the project with three on leave. Plant is working on hiring an Irrigation System Operator or “ditch rider” in the Camas area.

Plant reported that his crew has cleaned the heavily-vegetated Jocko R3 canal. They started on a Polson canal located on Hillside Road but needed to wait for the ground to dry to finish the project. Out at Valley View, they are working on an irrigation structure that needs concrete and patch work, and they are cleaning the Mission B canal and moving on to Mission C.

Plant said project pumps are “ready to go” with the exception of a middle discharge pipe that needed to be patched, and crews will be monitoring it. “We will get them up and operational depending on snowpack,” he said, which could be as soon as May. He plans to send out a letter with directions on water ordering.

The FIIP meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 11 at the Salish Kootenai College, near the gym, which is where Plant will go over the project in detail. In other news, the FJBC is working on appealing a judge’s decision concerning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In December of 2016, Judge H. Peter Young ruled that the FJBC failed to prove that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe is required to provide low-cost power for irrigation from the Seliš Ksanka Qĺispe dam.

The FJBC voted to allow their attorney to file a motion to strike out comments in an opposition brief during the appeal process. It was mentioned that the appeal could take about two years to finish. The attorney working on the case is contracted for $100,000 for one year. Two briefs have been filed at $30,000 each, which leaves funds to work on this additional brief, estimated to cost about $10,000.

Board member Paul Guenzler posed a question to the board concerning the appeal and its cost: “When do we say enough is enough?” Board member Tim Orr responded by saying that securing a lower power rate for the project would save irrigators more money in years to come than the board was spending on legal fees. Board member Gene Posivio said that if the board lets the low-cost power go, then “it’s gone forever,” and board member David Lake mentioned that the low-cost power was in the CSKT-Montana Water Compact.

The water rights adjudication process was the last issue on the agenda. Water rights specialist Tom Hughes was hired as an employee to go over the FJBC’s 146 water rights claims before they are taken to Water Court in June of 2018. The board voted to carry insurance on Hughes for just under $4,000 for one year in case any of his work is legally contested. The board is considering how to handle issues that might come up after the insurance contract ends.

The Flathead District is in the process of filling a position left open on the board after Dick Erb resigned, effective as of Feb. 22. He was not at the Wednesday meeting.

In a phone interview, Erb stated the general reason for his unexpected resignation. “I don’t want to participate in decisions that waste irrigators’ money on litigation.”

He explained his statement in a letter to the board. “The FJBC launched a number of lawsuits over the past three years that failed. In each case, the FJBC appealed to a higher court. There is a need to step off the appeals treadmill and reexamine the merits and costs of each FJBC legal action in a public discussion and not in a closed executive session.”

He is also concerned about the board’s budget.

“During the first seven months of 2016, legal expenditures were both misreported and underreported. For the year, legal expenditures totaled almost $600,000,” he stated. “Questions also have been asked about budget data reported for 2014 and 2015. There is a need for an independent audit of FJBC budget management and reported budget outcomes over the past three years.”

Erb also feels that the board should have put more effort into the Water Rights adjudication process several years ago. He said the board needs to be better prepared if the CSKT-Montana Compact, which he supports, isn’t approved.

“If the majority of the board is going to fight the compact, there needs to be an alternative path,” Erb said. He added that the public needs to be informed of the risks and costs to an alternative.

Erb’s seat isn’t up for election until May 2018, so the Flathead District will appoint someone to fill it until then.

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