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Tin Cup overfloweth at taxpayers’ expense

The bill for dam repair


It’s been two years and the irrigators downstream from the Tin Cup wilderness dam still haven’t paid their $964,993.95 water bill.

The 87 landowners who comprise the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District rely on irrigation water from the Tin Cup Dam, which lies 14 miles southwest of Darby in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In the spring of 1998, the irrigators, all of whom collectively own the dam, discovered a dangerous leak in the aging earthen structure.

Fearing the dam would break but without the funds to fix it, the irrigators turned to the deepest pockets around—the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service, in a closed-door session with officials from the Tin Cup Water and Sewer District, agreed in May 1998 to repair the leak and bill the owners later.

Over the objections of wilderness advocates, the Forest Service flew crews and heavy machinery via helicopter into the wilderness that summer to repair the leak and shore up the dam. The nearly $1 million bill was submitted a year later.

But according to Bitterroot National Forest engineer Roy Grant, the Tin Cup water users made no offer to pay the bill, despite the previous agreement to do so. The bill has since been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office for collection.

Few people in either the Forest Service or the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Billings, Helena and Missoula, would comment on the status of the bill that, to date, has been paid by U.S. taxpayers. Tex Marsolek, spokesman for the water district, could not be reached for comment.

Lorraine Gallinger, the attorney now handling the case, says that, generally speaking, the U.S. Attorney has a number of options in these types of cases, including foreclosure or litigation.

The Tin Cup dam was built nearly a century ago to provide irrigation water to downstream landowners. Over the past hundred years, that land has been subdivided into parcels of various sizes. There are now 87 landowners who own the dam and rely on the water it impounds to irrigate their nearly 2,500 acres.


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