Sunday, March 03, 2024


| June 16, 2006 12:00 AM

We're in an emergency situation at Libby Dam.

Consider this: Libby Dam was designed to hold back a pool - a resevoir - with a surface no higher than 2,459 feet above sea level. Now the dam isn't going to crumble and come down if we go a foot above that mark but it is not recommended nor has it been tried in the 30-plus years the dam has stood.

In other words, a massive filling of the reservoir by runoff from Canada could jeopardize the structure or parts of the structure at the dam. We're not in imminent threat of the dam collapsing because the spillway can handle more than the maximum flow ever recorded on the Kootenair River. None of us want to see that because it is the reason the dam was built.

So accusations that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought us to the brink of disaster doesn't hold water.

In addition to the design specifications of the dam, going above 2,459 feet above sea level is a violation of the international treaty with Canada and a violation of the federal enabling law for Libby Dam. Also serious.

The Corps has a mandate built in that goes something like this: Thou shalt not flood. It's probably not written anywhere but they are the anti-flood guys and gals.

Could they and the other water managers in the federal Columbia River system done a better job this year of preparing for the runoff? In hindsight it's quite easy to point out that if they did this or that, we wouldn't be damaging the Kootenai River fishery right now or creating problems for people living along the river right here in Montana.

We'll have plenty of time to discuss that in the coming weeks and months.

I really believe we must take a conservative approach to refill, at least a more conservative approach than we have in recent years since we've seen spills twice in four years. I've heard people say there hasn't been a spill at Libby Dam prior to that. That isn't quite true from what some state wildlife people tell me. It's just been a long time because this area has experienced a prolonged drought.

Regardless, we must be conservative with refill for the safety and protection of the dam and the lives and property of the thousands of us living downstream, for the survival and protection of the great fishery. After that we should think about the downstream endangered species - sturgeon and salmon.

For now we have to spill, and we should be encouraging the Corps to stay way ahead of any real problems that could evolve with some Biblical rain or warm weather event in the huge drainage above us. The weather forecast, at least right now, might be favoring a slowing of the runoff into Lake Koocanusa. If that evolves, the Corps will back off on the spill amounts. As long as Mother Nature doesn't try to show us again that she really is in control. — Roger Morris