Several agencies will coordinate analysis of issues
State agencies will analyze biological, management and legal issues connected with the possible removal of Enloe Dam and restoration of the Similkameen River, including ownership of the dam and liability concerns.
The dam, on the Similkameen River near the Canadian border, is owned by the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD).
The supplemental operating budget for the 2021-23 biennium appropriates $250,000 for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to conduct the research and present findings, analysis and recommendations to the appropriate Legislative committees by Dec. 1.
Potential restoration of the Similkameen River could allow access to more than 300 miles of habitat for threatened and endangered steelhead and other native salmonids, according to the budget proviso.
WDFW is expected to coordinate and consult with the state Department of Ecology, state Department of Natural Resources, Colville Confederated Tribes, the PUD, and other relevant entities.
While some critical information is still unknown, the study should help answer questions about the condition of the dam, chemistry of the sediment, and the capacity for spring Chinook and steelhead upriver of the dam, the Enloe Dam Working Group said in a letter to WDFW Director Kelly Susewind last month. The letter, which proposed goals for the study, was signed by Trout Unlimited, Conservation Northwest and the Colville Tribes.
Removing Enloe would provide a substantial increase in steelhead production and ensure the existence of this species in the Okanogan River Basin, where numbers of returning natural-origin fish have been very low in recent years, the working group told Susewind.
The analysis could also identify an entity — a state or federal agency or a consortium of environmental groups and nonprofits — to lead a dam-removal effort, Lisa Pelly, Director of Trout Unlimited’s Washington Water Project, told the Methow Valley News.
Trout Unlimited and Conservation Northwest lobbied for the funding, working with state senators Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) and Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline), who serve on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks.
WDFW can use the money to resolve issues that move the dam closer to removal, Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman told the Methow Valley News. The language of the appropriation is general enough that WDFW and other agencies can do a structural inspection of the dam, sediment testing, or conduct a legal analysis and propose scenarios for dam removal, he said.
“The objective is to get the dam out,” Friedman said. Not only is the dam not performing any service, but it is blocking the river for fish passage and, by impounding water, it contributes to the overall warming of the river, which has detrimental effects on the entire Okanogan River basin, he said.
“The objective is to restore the Similkameen and its cool waters to a state that improves the Columbia system for salmon,” Friedman said.
“It is, for me, utterly convincing that the sooner [the dam is removed], the better, to help those fish and open up all the habitat above Enloe Dam,” Pelly said.
WDFW hadn’t been advocating to take on this role but, now that they have the assignment, the agency hopes the report will be a constructive contribution toward resolving a long-standing issue, said Michael Garrity, WDFW’s Division Manager for Energy, Water and Major Projects.
WDFW is an obvious choice because of its role in managing salmon and steelhead habitat, Garrity said. Ecology focuses on water quality, and both agencies have institutional knowledge about the dam. The study will help determine an agency best suited to move ahead on Enloe, he said.
One of WDFW’s first steps will be to create a road map with alternatives for future dam management and to look at liability issues, Garrity said.
Trout Unlimited has been exploring potential removal of Enloe Dam for a number of years, including discussions with the PUD. The PUD has been very clear that they want a comprehensive plan before they entertain removal, Pelly said.
WDFW will work with the community and the PUD to facilitate a productive conversation to address concerns and identify needs, Garrity said.
One goal of this research is to get all the state agencies, the Colville Tribes, and conservation groups working together on a master plan, Pelly said. The plan can outline steps and alternatives and study different scenarios for dam ownership, she said.
Because there was mining just upstream of the dam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there are concerns about possible contaminants, and one of the biggest unknowns is what’s in the sediment behind the dam. Dealing with contaminants can be one of the costliest aspects of dam removal, Pelly said.
Federal and state agencies have already begun analyzing the sediment, Friedman said. At the request of Trout Unlimited and the Colville Tribes, the U.S. Geological Survey did some sediment sampling two years ago and is currently finishing its report, Pelly said. Ecology will do additional sediment analysis this month, with results expected by the fall, Friedman said.
Another key aim is to create a sediment-management plan. Even clean sediment can’t simply be allowed to be carried downriver, because a high volume of sediment can create its own problems for the river and fish, Pelly said.
Research into which species of salmon can swim above Similkameen Falls, and at what volume of water, will help assess potential fish habitat, Pelly said.
While the $250,000 in the budget isn’t a lot of money, the analysis could be fairly complete when combined with other studies, Pelly said.
Federal infrastructure funds geared toward fish recovery could be tapped for dam removal, Pelly said.
Enloe Dam history
Enloe Dam was built in 1920. The PUD acquired the dam in 1945 but has not produced power there since 1959.
For years, the PUD was moving toward re-electrifying the dam, but when the cost proved prohibitive, the commissioners voted in 2018 not to pursue that option. Since then, the PUD has been doing required dam-safety and maintenance work.