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Former county official seeks meeting with agency on dam

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| July 16, 2013 10:45 AM

Former Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom thinks Libby is not getting a fair shake by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and she is looking for some answers.

Windom, who served as commissioner from 1996 to 2008, is upset that construction of Libby’s new Flower Creek Dam is being halted because the agency is now requiring a permit after city officials previously were told it was unnecessary.

“It makes no sense to require a new permit just to build a new dam 85 feet away,” Windom said during the Lincoln County Commission meeting Wednesday. “This is putting people’s lives at risk. I think we should have the (U.S. Fish & Wildlife) people here for a town hall meeting. Get to the bottom of this.”

A message left Monday for Tim Bodurtha of the USFWS was not returned.

Windom expressed dissatisfaction with the agency, saying it seems too often there is concern for bull trout and grizzly bears put above the concerns of the people.

“The city is being held hostage for bull trout,” Windom said.

At issue is construction of a new Flower Creek Dam, which creates the reservoir for the City of Libby water system. The 50-plus-year-old dam is 55-feet high and holds back water covering about a seven-acre reservoir. The dam is deteriorating and state agencies have said because of its poor condition, the Department of Natural Resources will not  re-permit it. Permits are for five years, and Flower Creek Dam was last permitted about two-and-a-half years ago.

As recently as last week, Daniel Johnson, an official of Rural Development, which is the funding arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said because of the permitting snafu, the Libby project will not receive funding for 2013. Libby City Council members were in line for a funding package that included a low-interest loan from Rural Development to further construction later this summer and into fall. Now, however, that is not going to happen, Johnson said.

“I think we may just have to sue and subpoena them,” Windom said of the USFWS.

Sitting in on that commission meeting was Lincoln County Administrator Bill Bischoff, who is uniquely qualified to comment on the dam situation. Bischoff, in addition to being a county official, is president of the Libby City Council.

“If the dam breaks, the county is affected, too,” Bischoff said referring to the County Courthouse.

Windom concurred.

“This is a county building. If that dam breaks, it could affect the county as well. I’m concerned about the people downstairs, in Sheriff’s Department,” Windom said. 

Presiding Commissioner Tony Berget agreed. He also said he is not anticipating any work on the dam in 2013 for fears of a protracted permitting process.

“We’ve all seen it before. They say something takes 120 days, but it doesn’t,” Berget said. “I’ve seen it go to 200, 210 days or more. There is no penalty for not making the deadline. They just say, we don’t have the funds (to meet fixed deadlines.)”