*Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to correct the estimated cost of a sediment study. The estimate is $70,000, not $70 million.
By Marcy Stamper
After years of tentative discussions, the PUD, state and federal agencies, and representatives from environmental organizations and the Colville tribes are seriously exploring ideas that could lead to the removal of Enloe Dam.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) commissioners met with key interest groups on Monday (March 9) to explore ways to relieve the PUD of liability for the dam in exchange for environmental benefits for fish habitat.
Some of the parties have been talking on and off for years, but this was the first-ever public meeting, said Rich Bowers, Pacific Northwest Coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition.
The state Department of Ecology is willing to talk with legislators and the governor to see what options exist to provide money for the PUD in exchange for removing the dam to create improved fish habitat, said Derek Sandison, director of the Office of Columbia River for Ecology.
To be successful, the scheme would require finding a way to quantify the value of improved habitat in the Similkameen River if the dam were removed, he said.
The PUD has what are called nonconsumptive water rights associated with the dam, because the river flows over the dam at Similkameen Falls. Any agreement would most likely involve finding a way of attaching a value to that water and its role for habitat, said Sandison. Habitat improvements could conceivably be more valuable than the water itself, he said.
Removing the dam could provide 250 to 300 miles of new habitat for salmon in the Upper Similkameen River, mostly in Canada, by allowing fish to go beyond the falls, said Bowers.
At this point all participants are open to working together to find a mutually agreeable solution, although there are no specific proposals.
While there has been some mention of using the water for irrigation, that would require a change in state law, since it is currently illegal to convert a nonconsumptive water right to one that would consume the water, said Sandison. The PUD’s water right connected with the dam is for about 4,000 acre-feet.
What’s in the sediment?
Chris Fisher, a fisheries biologist with the Colville tribes, has been talking with federal agencies about a study that would reveal what is in the sediment that has collected behind the dam for decades. Fisher said he has had a favorable response and expects a commitment for funding for the study, estimated at $70 thousand, later this week.
Fisher also expects to have a step-by-step proposal for dam removal from an environmental firm that has worked on similar projects.
The PUD commissioners have insisted that they will only consider dam removal if they get a solid commitment from another entity to take full responsibility, completely absolving the PUD and its ratepayers from any liability.
“The PUD really doesn’t want to be a party to removal. That’s what makes it palatable to us,” said PUD Commissioner Steve Houston.
Ecology is willing to brainstorm, but will not be the lead agency to take out the dam, said Sandison.
“When it comes to being part of the solution, we just want to be done with it and move away,” said PUD Commissioner Scott Vejraska.
The parties reviewed a draft agreement-in-principle prepared by an attorney working with Trout Unlimited, committing them to work together to explore opportunities for dam removal.
PUD Commissioner Ernie Bolz said the situation reminded him of the discussion between a pig and a chicken about breakfast. The chicken suggests bacon and eggs, and the pig says, “For you, that’s just a donation; for me, that’s a commitment,” said Bolz. Bolz said he is nervous about any agreement that doesn’t completely absolve the PUD.
The PUD has a license from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to retrofit the dam to generate power. The commissioners voted in February to seek a two-year extension for the design and build phase. They agreed this week to work with the attorney who is handling the license to ensure that their agreement with FERC is straightforward, allowing them to investigate dam removal.