I wonder, if you stood around the Okanogan County Public Utility District headquarters, whether you might hear a discreet sigh of relief escaping from inside. Because after years of defending the increasingly indefensible rebuilding of Enloe Dam to again produce electricity, the utility’s staff and board of commissioners were given an out last week — and they gratefully grabbed it like the financial lifesaver it may turn out to be.
The relevant news was that, as many observers have been arguing, the projected costs of reactivating and operating the dam are simply not sustainable in any realistic financial scenario. Methow Valley News reporter Marcy Stamper puts is succinctly in her story on page A1 in this week’s issue: “After 13 years of planning, permitting and number-crunching for Enloe Dam, a new estimate that puts the cost of rebuilding the dam at more than twice the original amount has sunk the project.”
The PUD and commissioners recently received a new cost estimate for rebuilding the dam — and all told, it was in fact nearly three times the estimate they had been using to continue supporting the reactivation of Enloe, which was shut down nearly 60 years ago because cheaper power was available elsewhere. The projected cost of power generated at the reactivated dam would be nearly five times what the PUD pays the Bonneville Power Administration now. The PUD staff told the commissioners that the project no longer pencils, pens or crayons out as competitive or feasible, and recommended abandoning it. The commissioners saw their escape route and took it. They decided unanimously to scrap the reactivation plan.
Ultimately, that decision is likely to be validated when considering all the costs, options and difficulties of proceeding with rebuilding Enloe, balanced against other alternatives. So if you’ve been critical of the commission’s stubborn clinginess to the PUD’s antiquated dam, give them credit now for making the rational choice.
You’re entitled to some frustration. Observing the PUD and its commissioners over the past few years has been like watching a cheesy horror movie in which clueless teenagers come to grisly ends in creepy houses. You want to yell at the screen, “Get out of there, for god’s sake!” A lot of PUD ratepayers have been doing just that, essentially — supplicating, pleading, demanding that the utility stop throwing worse money after bad money to re-electrify the long-moribund dam.
Then there was the recent surreal discussion of whether there is contaminated sediment backed up behind the dam. The commissioners said they didn’t want to know, because then they might have to do something about it.
I had an interesting exchange with reader Bob Hunt of Twisp, who had an insightful letter to the editor in last week’s paper. His blunt but politely offered observation was that “the PUD does not seem to be applying the most rigorous processes when doing a trade study for various options. They seem to neglect important pieces of the options and their impacts …”
I took issue with Bob on one point: that the “sunk” costs (the millions already spent on planning, mitigation, studies, permits, staff time, etc.) don’t matter in terms of planning for future costs — as he put it, what’s spent is spent. I would suggest that it matters to ratepayers who have watched the PUD spend all that money for more than a decade, ultimately to no tangible effect. Unless you consider it the built-in price of figuring the whole thing out once and for all — water over the dam, if you will.
Of course, there was always a big “now what” lurking out there if the PUD decided against reactivating Enloe, and it’s in front of the utility now. The commissioners gave the PUD staff 120 days to consider other options for the dam. None of them will be simple or cheap either. One popular suggestion is to remove the dam to restore a free-flowing Similkameen River — a lovely idea which has its own implications.
If you’ve been actively following the Enloe Dam drama, we urge you not to stop now. Don’t be sore winners. Switch gears and keep talking to the staff and commissioners about Enloe’s other future. Offer ideas and be part of the solution, because there is going to be one.