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Taking Back Power: Tribes Vie For Control Of Hydro Dams

Bill Barrett, Wikimedia. A view of Kerr Dam with the gates at full open in June 2011.

The Northwest hydropower system is full of dams that were built over the strenuous objections of Native American tribes. Now, two of these old projects are changing ownership -- one in Western Montana and another in central Oregon.

And it’s the tribes that were once powerless to stop them that are becoming the new managers.

The Kerr Dam went up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1930s. It’s north of Missoula. Homesteaders and farmers used it for irrigation and it still generates electricity to this day.

Jordan Thompson stands before the massive “U” shaped structure. He’s a lawyer for the energy company formed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. He says these tribes consider the ground the dam rests on sacred.

"When the dam was being built, the tribes really resisted," Thompson says. "They were really trying not to have that dam built. But at that time they really didn’t have a tribal government that the United States could sit down with and actually negotiate with.”

He says now the tribes are stronger financially and politically. And since the dam is on tribal trust land, the Salish and Kootenai are vying to take over the federal licence when it gets renewed in 2015.

Thompson says the tribes plan to run Kerr dam in a way that will benefit fish. For example, they won’t send huge gushes of water down river at peak power production hours even if it means making less money.

“Having a peaking facility might generate might generate $10, $20, $30 million more per year than a base load facility, but for the tribes just running a facility that’s in alignment with our tribal values is really important to us.”

The Salish and Kootenai tribes are still negotiating with the current owner of the dam, Montana Power Company. The tribes are looking to the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon for as an example of how it may work.

In 2000, the Warm Springs became part owners over the Pelton Project which includes three dams. They own about 33 percent of the project. Portland General Electric owns the rest. But the new agreement means eventually the tribes will own a majority share.

Even part ownership has meant big change for the Pelton Project on the Deschutes River. Jim Manion, director of the Warm Springs’ power company, says the tribe has a stronger voice in how environmental mitigation money is spent.

“We’ve purchased over 20,000 acres off-reservation for winter deer range habitat," he says. "We’ve improved recreation facilities within the project.”

Manion says tribes across the country are also interested in taking over dams and looking to see what happens with the Warm Springs, Salish and Kootenai tribes. But because federal dam licenses take so long to come open, many of those nations will have to wait several decades.


This story was made possible partly by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.

On the Web:

Kerr Dam overview - PPL Montana

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.