TUMWATER The Okanogan County Public Utility District, the state and several environmental groups are waiting for a decision on an appeal regarding a permit issued for Enloe Dam.
After two more days of testimony last week following a four-day hearing in April, the state Pollution Control Hearings Board will consider the legality of a 401 certification issued in July 2012 by the state Department of Ecology.
“That’s the trigger from the state to look at it and determine if the project is going to operate in compliance with the state law,” state Assistant Attorney General Sonia Wolfman said. “The agency is issuing that under the authority of both the federal Clean Water Act and the state water quality laws.”
Utility officials declined to comment on the issue.
“This is litigation, and we just don’t make a comment on the subject matter of litigation until the final adjudication,” General Manager John Grubich said.
The utility wants to relicense the dam to generate electricity.
The argument made on May 15-16 by the appellants was that the Enloe Dam project, which would decrease the flow of the Similkameen Falls, disregards the state’s aesthetic requirements.
The falls are just downstream from the dam.
“It’s a narrow argument, but it is part of state law that when you are affecting a river, you cannot destroy the scenic qualities of the river,” Jere Gillespie of the Columbia Bioregional Education Project said.
“That is the part of the law that we’re asking the judges to rule on, because the permit for Enloe Dam awards the PUD virtually all uses of the river there. It allows them to remove the river from its river bed and put it through a series of turbines to generate electricity with, and then return the river to its bed below the falls, so we’re saying that this violates state law.”
The Columbia Bioregional Education Project’s argument is that drying up the falls would fly in the face of the state’s water quality laws.
While Ecology’s permit requires the utility to leave at least 30 cubic feet per second of water in the river between July and September, the rest of the year the utility is required to leave only 10 cfs.
The average monthly flow of the falls is 500 cfs, Rich Bowers with the Hydropower Reform Coalition said.
“That’s kind of like looking at a ribbon laid across a football field,” Gillespie said. “There’s just not going to be enough of the river left to resemble a waterfall.”
Wolfman said people won’t notice a difference in flow below Similkameen Falls.
Ecology can’t require the utility to maintain a 500 cfs flow at all times because the river doesn’t always hold that amount at certain times of the year, she said.
“The problem with that (more river flow) is it’s going to heat the water up and the Similkameen is already impaired.
“Ecology required some flow for aesthetics, but not as much as the appellants would like to see,” she said.
The river’s temperature can be lethal to fish in the summer months – endangered salmon species especially, she said.
“The agency’s position is that they need to provide the aesthetic flow, (but) there are the needs of the fish that also have to be accommodated,” Wolfman said. “The agency is balancing these two interests which, in this case, are opposite of each other.”
“Appellants proved their case that the Clean Water Act requires more protection of the public’s interest in these beautiful falls and that Ecology’s certification falls short of providing the public with reasonable assurance that the aesthetics of the Falls are protected,” Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy Suzanne Skinner said.
For utility ratepayers outside the north county, a concern is whether Enloe Dam will be a moneymaker.
In the Columbia Bioregional Education Project’s own economic analysis of the project, “it cannot be a profit-making thing for our PUD to build this. It’s going to lose money,” Gillespie said. “Enloe Dam is never going to be an economic source of power. We would like our PUD managers to sit down with us and tell us why they think differently.”
There are too many other sources of power in the area for the dam to be profitable, from wind power to solar panels, she said.
The most recent tally is $35.2 million for the cost of the project.
Director of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs Dan Boetttger said the power output would be 9 megawatts at its peak, or an average of about 4.5 megawatts. He said that would be enough to power approximately 3,500 homes, depending on the time of the year.
The 401 certification is a condition required by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission before the utility can obtain a license to operate the dam, Wolfman said.
The utility has been in its current process of trying to relicense Enloe Dam since 2005.
It is the fourth attempt to restart the dam since it quit generating power in 1958.
“We think that the 401 certification was lawfully issued, and we hope that the board agrees,” Wolfman said.
A decision from the Pollution Control Hearings Board is expected sometime this summer.
“During closing arguments, all in the courtroom recognized that the decision from the court likely will impact rivers and waterfalls throughout Washington state,” Bowers wrote in a post-hearing update.
Other organizations that appealed the permit were the North Cascades Conservation Council, American Whitewater and the Sierra Club.