By Marcy Stamper
As discussions over the fate of Enloe Dam — whether to restart it or remove it — continue, the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) is also looking for a party interested in adapting the historic 1920 powerhouse for public use.
The powerhouse, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, is on the east bank of the Similkameen River near Oroville. It would be replaced with a new powerhouse if the PUD reenergizes the dam.
Although the powerhouse has sustained structural damage and vandalism over decades of disuse, the PUD points to its favorable location — near a scenic trail, the river and wineries — as attractive features. The powerhouse is brick and offers expansive views of the river, according to the PUD’s solicitation.
The PUD wants to wait as long as possible to see if there is interest in renovating the powerhouse, since it has historic value and is not in the way of electrifying the dam, according to PUD Commissioner Steve Houston. Nevertheless, plans for generating power at Enloe call for demolition of the powerhouse.
Inclusion on the historic register is an honor, but it does not automatically protect a structure or prevent demolition, according to Allyson Brook, state historic preservation officer with the Washington Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.
The Enloe Powerhouse is historically significant for its associations with the region’s mining and agricultural industries, according to the state’s historic property inventory report.
While historic status does not prevent demolition, local, state or federal laws may require more in-depth review before a historic structure is removed, said Brook. The PUD owns the powerhouse, but the powerhouse — like Enloe Dam itself — sits on federal land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Meanwhile, PUD staff and commissioners continue to meet with entities regarding the future of Enloe Dam itself. They are in discussions with two parties interested in operating the dam to produce hydropower, said Houston. One is a private developer with experience running similar projects; the other is a joint operating agency that develops hydropower projects for PUDs that don’t have the expertise, he said.
If the PUD reached an agreement with another entity to develop the dam, the PUD would still own the federal license to operate the dam, as well as the dam itself, which would necessitate “a very tight relationship,” said Houston.
On the other hand, if the PUD finds an entity interested in removing the dam, the utility would want no part of that arrangement, said Houston. “If the dam’s going to be taken out, we’re not going to be a party to it,” he said.
The PUD has experience with hydropower projects and has a dam-safety plan as part of its federal license, but potential liability connected with dam removal is not something the PUD is prepared to absorb, said Houston.
Houston said removal could potentially affect the river and a key fishery, particularly if considerable sediment, now backed up behind the dam, is released into the water.
Last summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries seemed interested in the potential for dam removal as a way to help fish, but NOAA and the PUD could not reach an agreement.
In a letter sent to the PUD in July, NOAA cited incompatible timing. “[W]e unfortunately do not foresee the ability to pursue the lead agency role further at this time. If in the future the PUD decides against the hydroelectric option or chooses to reduce any of its requirements for lead agency reimbursement or liability, we hope you would contact us to discuss the options further,” wrote Dale Bambrick, a supervisory fish biologist with the agency.
Still, NOAA wanted to keep options open. “We remain serious about consideration of the lead agency role as we have defined it. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if conditions change and we might be able to find common ground in removing the Enloe Dam,” wrote Bambrick.
Houston said this week that there appears to be no mechanism for a federal agency to take over the dam and initiate removal.
But a group of advocates for rivers and fish who have been pressing the PUD to remove the dam say there are precedents for such an arrangement. Thomas O’Keefe, the Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, pointed to other situations in the Northwest, including Elwha Dam, where a private owner transferred dam ownership to a federal agency for removal.
“The pathway is very open on the Enloe project. It’s not simple, but it’s definitely possible. The river-restoration community has done it in other places,” said O’Keefe.
Both the PUD and advocates for removal point to the economics of Enloe as essentially obligating power generation or removal.
State and federal legislation requiring increased use of clean, renewable energy create value for Enloe power, said Houston. “It may not make sense right now, but in a few years, it could be very valuable power,” he said.
The PUD’s own figures from 2014 estimate the cost of building Enloe at $39 million to $45 million. They say Enloe would add to the utility’s annual costs until a construction bond would be paid off in about 30 years.
Dam-removal advocates estimate it would cost $35 million to take out the dam.
The same economic analysis leaves O’Keefe optimistic that the PUD will ultimately opt to remove the dam. State legislators strongly support diversifying energy sources beyond hydropower, said O’Keefe. “None of that will change the economics of this project,” he said.
“The PUD needs to come to its own conclusion that removal is the best alternative for ratepayers,” said O’Keefe.
If the PUD decommissions the dam, the utility would be required to remove the dam and associated structures and restore the land to its original condition, according to BLM’s Wenatchee field manager.
If the PUD decides to reenergize the dam, Houston predicts it would start engineering this summer and start construction next year. The federal license for the dam requires the PUD to produce power by 2017, according to Houston.
For more information about the powerhouse, contact the PUD at (509) 422-8472.