By Marcy Stamper
With the deadline to begin construction on Enloe Dam in the rear-view mirror, the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) has “respectfully request[ed]” another two years from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to get started on the project.
The PUD faced a July 9 construction deadline to start on the 9-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Similkameen River, itself a two-year extension on the original FERC deadline.
But the PUD contends that lawsuits have prevented it from moving ahead with Enloe. “Project development efforts have been hampered by considerable litigation in administrative proceedings and state courts, removing the fulfillment of the construction deadlines from the District’s control,” said the PUD’s attorney in a request submitted to FERC on June 22.
Obtaining a two-year stay is necessary to maintain the PUD’s federal license to build Enloe Dam while the PUD continues “its ongoing diligent efforts to develop the project and seek congressional authorization for further extensions of the statutory deadline,” he wrote.
In the request, the PUD points to litigation over its water rights for Enloe and the need to defend these rights before multiple agencies and courts. “This time-consuming litigation has resulted in a lack of certainty as to its exact water rights,” they said. Knowing the scope of the water rights is necessary to complete the engineering design for Enloe, the PUD contends.
The lawsuit over water rights, filed by the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and coalition partners in 2012, focused on the amount of water the PUD could divert to produce power and the minimum amount of water required to flow over Similkameen Falls, particularly during the low-flow season.
A Washington state board determined that preserving the aesthetics of the falls is a key objective. But it allowed the PUD to go forward with Enloe and then have the Washington Department of Ecology evaluate the aesthetic impact on the falls once power is generated.
A coalition of about 10 clean-water and environmental groups that have been opposing power generation at Enloe — and instead urging the PUD to remove the dam remnants that have sat in the Similkameen River for almost a century — has been tracking Enloe and the FERC deadline as it approached.
After the PUD filed the request for a stay, the coalition said there is “still great uncertainty with the water available for the project,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director with American Whitewater, by email. Ecology could withdraw the water-right permit completely if studies find that flow levels don’t protect both fish and aesthetics, he said.
The coalition is confident it can find an entity that would assume complete liability for dam removal, said O’Keefe. The PUD has made assumption of liability a condition of dam removal, and has said none of the parties interested in removal have provided sufficient guarantee to protect the PUD.
The original FERC two-year license was issued in 2013, and the PUD obtained a two-year extension. FERC does not typically grant a second extension. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R, Washington’s 4th District) has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would authorize FERC to grant additional extensions.
The PUD began the current license-application process with FERC a dozen years ago. The utility previously considered re-energizing the dam in the 1980s and 1990s, but the PUD rescinded those licenses because of economic conditions and uncertainty over fish passage.