HAMILTON - Tin Cup irrigators say a wilderness group should help them pay $964,993 for emergency repairs on a wilderness dam last summer.
Tex Marsolek, spokesman for the Tin Cup Water District, contends the Forest Service made concessions to environmentalists such as flying in equipment that ultimately made the dam repair work more costly.
But members of the Wilderness Watch say the big bill could have been avoided altogether if the district had inspected the dam yearly, as required by its special-use permit.
The 93-year-old dam impounds 80-acre Tin Cup Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, about 14 miles southwest of Darby. The lake held about 2,420 acre-feet of water, and is the main source of water for the 3,000-acre irrigation district.
George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, rejected Marsolek's challenge to share in the repair costs and said the Forest Service failed to enforce conditions in the special-use permit.
"The Forest Service is supposed to ensure those inspections happen," Nickas said.
He said Tin Cup Dam has a history of poor maintenance that resulted in a series of "emergency conditions" over the past decade and culminated with a major leak in May 1998.
He said the emergency repair work last summer violated wilderness standards with frequent fly-ins of heavy equipment and supplies by large helicopters.
"Had the Forest Service been doing its job in the first place, none of this damage would have occurred, and the public wouldn't be exposed to a $1 million debt," Nickas said.
But Marsolek said the irrigation district has met the terms of the special-use permit. A qualified engineer has inspected the dam annually at least for the past three years, he said.
He called Wilderness Watch's claims "hogwash."
"We were up there the entire fall the year before the leak with our engineer," he said. "There was never evidence during that entire time frame that there was anything that might leak."
Marsolek said he doesn't know if annual inspections were done before three years ago.
"I can't speak for what happened the last 40 years, but when we felt that there was an urgency to do it, it was done," he said.
Forest Service officials were unable to verify the frequency of the dam inspections Wednesday. The Missoulian had requested information on inspections for 1992 through 1996 Tuesday morning, but officials said late Wednesday they needed more time to research files and contact forest employees who were unavailable for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
Dixie Dies, forest public information officer, said she requested that the newspaper submit questions in writing earlier this week for clarity because she had to seek an answer from several sources.
She supplied partial written answers to some of the questions late Wednesday.
Until the end of last summer, Tin Cup Dam was classified a "high hazard" dam, which means had it collapsed, property and lives probably would have been lost. In May 1998, irrigation district officials discovered a serious leak near the dam's outlet pipe and notified the Forest Service.
Concerned the dam might fail, Forest Service officials ordered the lake drawn down and the spillway lowered. The lake remains at half its previous level, and has been reclassified as a moderate-hazard dam. Federal law requires that moderate-hazard dams be inspected every five years.
Marsolek said the district wanted to do the repair work itself last summer with the help of some emergency funding from the government, but emergency aid is only available after a disaster - not to help prevent one.
"The Forest Service wanted it done quick," he said. "Time was something that the Forest Service felt we didn't have a lot of, and they took over the work."
Marsolek said the irrigation district plans to spend the next few weeks poring over a stack of bills from the Forest Service that is 2 inches thick and totals $964,993.
Then the irrigation district's board will decide whether to pay some or all of it.
"We were a little shocked with the amount," Marsolek sa
id. "We're not sure of the legal basis of all the charges. They didn't discuss it with us and we need to have a chance to go through it all."
Dies wouldn't discuss what forest officials would do if the irrigation district fails to pay.
"We don't have any indication that they won't," she said. "We're giving them the benefit of the doubt."
Meanwhile, Marsolek said, the irrigation district has every intention of maintaining the dam for future use.
"We need that water in late season," he said. "The value of all that land would be reduced without water to irrigate it."
Thursday - 6/10/99