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Flathead Lake from Polson

Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains as seen from Polson.

ST. IGNATIUS – A federal judge this week denied an attempt by the Flathead Joint Board of Control to file an amended complaint regarding the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ takeover of operation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, and dismissed the board’s original lawsuit.

“Under no set of facts would the plaintiffs ever be entitled to the requested declaratory relief,” U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen wrote.

The board’s request that the judge establish its proposed management entity for the project “is wholly detached from the language of any law and appears to be merely a creation of their own desire,” Christensen said.

An amended complaint sought to add the state of Montana and two of the three irrigation districts that comprise the joint board as defendants. The BIA, Department of Interior and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel were among the originals.

It also alleged that certain funds held by a defunct Cooperative Management Entity were wrongfully scheduled to be transferred to “another entity.”

“Plaintiffs do not allege any facts suggesting that the United States or the State of Montana has control over these unspecified CME funds,” Christensen said, noting that the defunct CME is not named as a defendant. “Nor do plaintiffs allege any facts suggesting that the United States or the State of Montana has ‘scheduled’ the alleged transfer. In sum, it is not even clear which defendant these claims are supposed to be directed against.”

The judge said courts lacked jurisdiction over some of the claims in the lawsuit, and other claims were not taken up because they were “well beyond the statute of limitations.”

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The FJBC contended that a 1908 act of Congress required that the project’s operation be turned over to landowners by the BIA once its cost was repaid.

But, Christensen said, that happened in 2010, six years after the project was paid off, when the board and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes formed a Cooperative Management Entity to oversee the project.

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“Significantly, the Transfer Agreement contained a provision for the ‘emergency re-assumption of the operation and management of all or part of the Project’ by the BIA if the Secretary of the Interior determined such emergency re-assumption was necessary,” the judge noted.

When members who had supported the Cooperative Management Entity were voted off the board in 2013 and “significant disagreements” about the CME arose, two of the three irrigation districts that comprise the joint board voted to withdraw from it.

That temporarily dissolved the FJBC.

Commissioners from the two withdrawing districts then requested the BIA re-assume control of the project to “safeguard the project and trust assets.”

“The BIA intended that its re-assumption of operation of the management of the project would be limited, temporary, and serve only as a stop-gap measure in order to maintain services to irrigators during the 2014 irrigation season while the parties negotiated a long term solution,” Christensen wrote

On Feb. 3, 2014, the BIA proposed a modified, nine-member CME responsible for operating the irrigation project, and requested a decision by Feb. 7. The proposed management entity would have been made up of four members appointed by CSKT, two by the Flathead Irrigation District, one each from the Jocko and Mission irrigation districts, and one by the BIA.

The tribes and the Jocko and Mission irrigation districts voted to approve the proposal, but the Flathead Irrigation District did not respond.

Instead, on Feb. 19, the Flathead district offered a counterproposal for a 13-member management entity that would include eight members appointed by the Flathead district, two by the tribes, two by the Mission district and one by the Jocko district.

The BIA and Department of Interior rejected the counterproposal on March 11, 2014.

Approximately three weeks later, the lawsuit was filed.

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