License extension will let them explore power generation, dam removal or water-rights change
By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan County Public Utility District commissioners have kept their options open on Enloe Dam, passing a resolution to request an extension on design and construction so they can look for partners to operate the dam, remove it, or even devise an alternative scenario for water use.
A standing-room-only crowd of 85 people attended the meeting on Monday (Feb. 9), at which the commissioners were to decide between two resolutions — to electrify the dam on the Similkameen River for the first time in more than 50 years or to remove it.
Instead, after public testimony that opposed electrification by a factor of three, the commissioners settled on a combined approach — applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for an extension on the construction license and looking for entities interested in working with the PUD to build and operate the dam or to take the responsibility for its removal.
The vote was 2-to-1. Commissioners Steve Houston and Scott Vejraska favored exploring more options, and Ernie Bolz voted no. An earlier vote on the resolution to build and electrify the dam drew the opposite results, with only Bolz in support.
Without an extension on the license, which was issued in 2013, the PUD is supposed to start construction in July, according to PUD General Manager John Grubich.
The approved resolution did not explicitly list all alternatives, but discussions at the meeting included a new possibility — converting some of the water rights the PUD owns in connection with the dam so the water could be used for irrigation.
The idea is in the exploratory stages and would require a change in state law, since it is currently illegal to switch water use from nonconsumptive (where the water would generate power but remain in the river) to consumptive (where water would be used for agriculture or development), said Houston at the meeting. The PUD and several organizations have held preliminary discussions with representatives from the state Department of Ecology about the idea, he said.
Support for retrofitting
Several members of the public favored retrofitting the dam to generate power, wanting to recoup the $12 million the PUD has already spent on the licensing process. They urged the PUD to move quickly because further delays would only increase construction costs.
The 10 who spoke opposing electrification insisted that the dam would always lose money because it is a relatively small hydropower project and river flows are low for much of the year.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns the land the dam sits on and has issued rights-of-way to the PUD for operation and access, Linda Coates-Markle, the agency’s Wenatchee field manager, told the crowd.
BLM is still looking for the 1918 agreement authorizing construction of the dam and does not know whether the PUD would be required to leave the dam itself in place or could remove it if it isn’t used to generate power, said Coates-Markle. Subsequent rights-of-way require removal of any more recent improvements if the dam is not operated.
The infrastructure at the site includes the dam itself, which creates a reservoir in the river, and much of the old power plant. The PUD’s plans call for a new powerhouse, generating equipment and a substation.
Not knowing the terms of the authorization frustrated one speaker. “We’re here for a make-or-break decision, but we don’t have the most crucial piece of information here — that’s a problem,” he said.
The PUD estimates that electricity generated at Enloe could power 2,000 homes — all of Oroville — but some speakers said that amount of power could easily be recovered through conservation measures.
Other concerns were raised over the content of sediment that has collected behind the dam, particularly because of the history of gold mining in the area. While the sediment has not been thoroughly evaluated, initial testing for heavy metals found most readings are below the threshold, said Chris Fisher, a fisheries biologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Several speakers said dam removal would create additional salmon habitat in the Similkameen River, far outweighing the benefits of power generation.
“This has tremendous value as a river, not as an industrial park,” said Joseph Enzensperger, an Oroville resident and longtime opponent of the dam.
Doing the math
At a meeting in November, the PUD presented figures that predicted the costs of building Enloe at from $39 million to $45 million and said it would add to the PUD’s annual costs until the construction bond is paid off in about 2047.
Estimates for dam removal are $35 million, according to advocates of removal.
“It’s all a question of finance — it’s as simple as that,” said Dan Isaacs of Tonasket, an opponent of the dam.
“You will not escape the negative effects of Enloe Dam. It’s mathematically impossible,” predicted a speaker who said he had spent 14 years as a project manager for Boeing.
After hearing from the public, some more than once, Bolz said that doing nothing — leaving the dam in place but not operating it — is not an option. “If we start decommissioning it, the opponents won’t let us stop,” he said. “Once the dam is in their crosshairs, it must remain there until it’s gone.”
Vejraska, who has been on the board a little more than a month, said he wanted to be sure the commissioners had explored all the options, including following up with a party who had expressed interest in building the dam and investigating the possibility of harnessing the water for irrigation.
Discussions with Ecology over the potential to divert some 4,000 gallons of water for irrigation within Okanogan County are in the preliminary stages, but some state legislators have expressed interest, said Vejraska after the meeting.
FERC’s standard extension for design and engineering is two years, said Grubich.