Frustration boils over at resistance to gathering more information
Ratepayers at a town hall meeting this week grew exasperated as they implored the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) commissioners to find out what’s in the sediment behind Enloe Dam, so the utility can make an informed decision about whether to re-energize or remove the dam.
The frustration erupted at a town-hall meeting in Brewster on Monday night (Sept. 24). The only topic on the minds of the 30 attendees was Enloe Dam, the 9-megawatt hydropower project on the Similkameen River near Oroville that hasn’t produced power for 60 years.
There is general acknowledgment that there may be some contaminants in the sediment that’s been backed up behind the dam for almost a century, given the history of mining in the area, but no one knows for sure. If the dam were removed, the sediment would be washed down the river.
“I don’t understand the resistance to a study. This will benefit us all. You can’t make an informed decision without being informed about all the alternatives,” said Maeyowa, who said she’s been tracking PUD projects for 30 years.
Pressed to explain why they haven’t commissioned a sediment study, PUD commissioner Jerry Asmussen said he wasn’t interested in doing a study because none of the agencies responsible for water quality have looked into it.
The PUD says it has already conducted all the sediment studies required by consulting parties, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which issued the license to rebuild the dam, and the Washington Department of Ecology.
PUD commissioner Bill Colyar was candid about his concerns. “If I don’t know what’s upstream from that dam, I don’t have to mitigate it. If I do know, I have to mitigate it,” he said.
Colyar said he has researched Enloe extensively and supports reenergization. Removing the dam “puts ratepayers at enormous risk. If it’s torn out, it will depend on what’s in the residue. It could be astronomical,” he said.
Asmussen supports turning Enloe, which the PUD has owned since 1945, into a benefit. “Either something is working for you, or it’s a burden. I’m in favor of making in an asset,” he said.
But members of the public were frustrated that all the PUD can do is speculate. “Moving forward without knowing the risks is irresponsible,” said one. “It’s intellectually insulting that, after 30 years, you don’t know the basic facts,” said another.
Chris Fisher, a PUD ratepayer and member of a habitat subcommittee, said he provided a proposal to the PUD last year for an investigation of the chemical composition of the sediment. The study would have been funded by other PUDs who operate dams on the Columbia River, who are required to mitigate for the impacts of the dams on salmon.
They pointed to videos taken in the past few years showing salmon jumping at the base of Similkameen Falls, just below the dam, which suggest fish would migrate further upriver.
In fact, removing the dam would open up 348 miles of fish habitat, which they said would provide more mitigation credits for Columbia River dams.
The PUD has already spent $16 million on the Enloe licensing process since 2008, and on defending the project against litigation.
The PUD estimates that building the dam will cost at least $31 million. A “not-to-exceed” estimate is due from the PUD’s design-build contractor at the end of October.
By their estimates, Enloe Dam could break even after operating for 40 years, said commissioner Scott Vejraska, although they can’t project the future cost of power. The PUD has a contract with Wells Dam to provide up to four times its current needs, said Vejraska.
“We have a responsibility to run the utility to benefit all customers,” said Steve Taylor, who started as the PUD’s general manager two months ago and said he’s still trying to get up to speed on Enloe.
Several at the meeting said they’re concerned that the PUD already has a backlog of deferred maintenance on its existing infrastructure and questioned the wisdom of building an expensive new project that is not projected to break even for 40 years.
Enloe faces other hurdles. FERC issued a license in 2015 to rebuild Enloe, and has extended it once. Under the terms of the license, the PUD has to start construction by July 9, 2019.
That date is the subject of a lawsuit filed in June by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of American Whitewater, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP), the Sierra Club, and Columbiana, the Columbia River Bioregional Education Project.
The plaintiffs contend that FERC is permitted to issue only one two-year extension. The PUD is proceeding with Enloe under a stay issued by FERC. FERC said it is entitled to issue a stay if “justice so requires.”
The Federal Power Act is very specific that FERC is not permitted to provide another extension without giving the public a chance to comment, said Andrew Hawley, staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.
A lawsuit over endangered salmon is pending. On Sept. 13, Columbiana, the Sierra Club, and CELP filed a 60-day notice of their intention to sue FERC, the PUD, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That lawsuit alleges that the agencies are required to reinitiate consultation because the videos showing jumping salmon constitute new information.
“There is new video evidence of what appear to be Chinook salmon jumping at the base of Enloe Dam, demonstrating that salmon can ascend the falls,” said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in a letter to FERC this May. “The Service assumes that if Chinook salmon can ascend to the base of Enloe Dam, other anadromous fish such as ESA-listed steelhead, as well as bull trout, are also likely to do so,” they said.
NMFS and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sent similar letters to FERC. “As steelhead are normally better leapers than Chinook salmon, if Chinook salmon can navigate the falls then it is very likely that steelhead are doing so,” said NMFS last year. NMFS is named in the lawsuit because the agency is required to reinitiate consultation, said Hawley.
Several people who’ve worked with federal agencies and on other dam removals assert that there is funding available to remove the dam, with little or no financial obligation from the PUD.
People at the meeting repeatedly urged the PUD to convene a stakeholder task force including people with expertise in water, hydropower and fish, to review all the options for Enloe, including reenergization and removal.
Although no one who spoke at the Brewster meeting supported reenergizing Enloe, the commissioners said there is “a silent majority” of ratepayers who want hydropower from Enloe.
Steve Ralph, a Winthrop resident who has worked as an environmental consultant on dams around the Northwest, has been talking every other week for a year with others interested in the issue to try to arrive at a solution.
The removal of Enloe, along with several other dams, is one measure under consideration by a new task force established by Gov. Jay Inslee to ensure a resilient population of orcas in Washington’s coastal waters.
By the end of the nearly three-hour town hall, after considerable pressure from the public, the general manager agreed to add discussion of a sediment study to the commissioners’ agenda for their next meeting on Oct. 8.