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Flathead water torture

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Every year Becky Mattson watches her land on the north shore of Flathead Lake shrink a little more. The losses come during the summer and fall, when the dam at the far end of the lake keeps the water level highest.

“All the people between the [Flathead] river and Big Fork are eating out and eating out,” Mattson says. “My property used to be 70 acres. When I bought it there was 35 acres. Now there’s only 25 acres left.”

So three years ago, Mattson and a group of other property owners on the north shore filed suit against Montana Power Company after getting no response to their $18.2 million claim of property damage caused by erosion.

Montana Power operated Kerr Dam, which is located a few miles south of where the river exits the lake, for hydroelectric power from 1938 until deregulation in 1997. Since then, Mattson and her fellow plaintiffs have added PP&L, Northwestern Energy, and Touch America to the suit as successors to Montana Power. Currently they’re trying to turn the issue into a class action lawsuit against PP&L on behalf of all private property owners on the 160 miles of shoreline. Class action status had been previously granted with regard to Montana Power, according to Chicago attorney Jamie Franklin, who represents the property owners.

Franklin blames Mattson’s property shrinkage on the high volume of the lake. During the winter and early spring, PP&L releases enough water to lower the lake to 2,883 feet above sea level, according to the most recent complaint filed in Flathead County District Court. But by the end of May, dam operators cause the water level to rise to 2,890 feet.

Operators maintain that level until October or November, when the lake is allowed to recede again for the winter. Mattson claims that this annual cycle constitutes an illegal taking of her property and that it causes “irreparable wave, flooding, sub-irrigation, and other action” which erodes and otherwise damages her land. She also claims that PP&L occasionally exceeds 2,893 feet above sea level, the limit permitted by the dam’s licensing agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Unless PP&L changes the way it operates, Mattson expects her property to continue shrinking. Her current worry is an adjacent parcel of land with two ponds owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the lake breaches the ponds, she says, the erosion will accelerate.

“They’ve done nothing to keep it from opening up into the lake,” Mattson says. “It’s endangering my land.”

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