OROVILLE Exploring the area around Enloe Dam and Similkameen Falls, it’s easy to see why it draws in people who love the outdoors.
Roads leading from the highway are primitive and tend to flood in a few spots during especially rainy seasons, but there are numerous walking trails surrounding the falls and opportunities for bird watching, not to mention checking out the historic dam and powerhouse built more than 90 years ago.
The dam hasn’t generated power since 1958, when the Okanogan County Public Utility District opted to shut it down and buy power more cheaply from Bonneville Power Administration. The powerhouse is dilapidated, the bridge that connected it to the other side of the river long gone.
Since then, there have been countless discussions and a few attempts to get a powerhouse up and running again. After a five-year application process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the utility secures a 50-year license in July 2013 to generate electricity.
Previous licenses were granted in 1983 and 1996, but were rescinded because there were no studies done on the impacts to anadromous fish.
Although commissioners still haven’t decided whether to restore the dam or breach it, and water issues are still caught up in litigation, the utility is moving forward with meeting FERC license deadlines.
Under terms of the license, if the commissioners decide to go ahead and operate the dam – a project that carries a roughly estimated cost of about $35 million – construction must begin by July 2015 and be completed three years later.
The project includes plans for two penstocks, a substation, a new powerhouse and tailrace, an intake channel, a bypass reach and five-foot crest gates to boost generation.
But the scope of the license involves more than just the dam, according to utility Regulatory and Environmental Affairs Director Dan Boettger. It also includes guidelines and requirements for fish mitigation, recreation and water quality, among other things.
One challenge the utility will have to address, he said, is the temperature of the Similkameen River, which can sometimes be fatally high for fish.
Because the nearby Okanogan River is even warmer, the Similkameen is a “cold water refuge” for fish, including endangered steelhead, trying to make their way upstream, Boettger said.
Utility employees have discovered small pockets of cold water welling up into the stream beds, where fish like to congregate to survive the hotter summer months before moving on, but more work is required.
One major project will involve drilling a well to pump cold water into the stream bed.
“All of the fish agencies are actually very excited to see this thing get done,” Boettger said. “The lower Similkameen is important habitat for salmonid.”
Another required project is bringing in more gravel to help fish safely spawn and house their eggs. Above the dam itself, the utility would install an intake channel with a wide opening that narrows as it descends into the penstocks and new powerhouse planned on the southeast side of the dam.
Part of the reason for the wider channel opening, Boettger said, is to slow down the water flow and give fish a chance to turn around and swim back up the reservoir. In addition, the intake won’t need to be as deep, meaning less sediment disruption.
Such measures are part of what he referred to as “P, M and E” – prevention, mitigation and enhancement.
“We’re trying to avoid fish impacts,” he said.
More recreation spots, including a park, small campground and boat launch, are planned for the wooded area northeast of the dam and at Miners Flat. The projects come at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land where Enloe Dam sits, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Those projects, however, may be the opposite of what people who use the area want.
Boettger said the utility has surveyed people during peak recreation times.
“They wanted us to maintain it as you see it today,” he said. “We have tried to honor that, but we’ve gotten some pressure from agencies that want more recreational amenities.”
A recreation plan is due in July, as are some other tasks.
“We’re currently meeting all of the dates that FERC assigned to us,” he said.
Boettger estimates the dam would become economical in about 20 years. It would generate a maximum of 9 megawatts between two 4.5-megawatt generators, which could provide electricity to about 3,500 homes.
As for the old powerhouse, Boettger said the utility initially wanted to rebuild it and use it, but can’t. Instead, the plan is to advertise it for sale over a five-year period. If no buyers come forward, it will be removed.
“We’re trying to come up with ways to make everyone happy,” he said.
A number of ratepayers believe the project isn’t a financially wise move and have asked the utility to remove the dam altogether. However, Boettger said there’s a chance for the utility to recoup some of its investment if the dam is operational, whereas spending a similar amount of money to remove it would be a total loss.
Jere Gillespie with the Columbia River Bioregional Education Project, which issued a study pointing out the economic problems surrounding the dam, said a proposal to remove Enloe has been created.
“The draft proposal has been submitted to PUD management, and contains an outline of other dams removed in the Northwest recently, the costs of those removals, and other such details,” she said, noting the document has not been made public yet. “Then the removal of Enloe itself is considered, and a timeline of objectives is offered. Also, potential funding sources are outlined and partners are identified.”
In February, the Hydropower Reform Coalition was invited along with several agencies to take part in a discussion about the possibility of removing the dam.
Representatives from the Bonneville Power Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management all said they would support removing the dam if the utility chooses to go that route, but no one was able to contribute funding to accomplish it.
The Colville Confederated Tribes spoke in favor of reopening the dam. The tribe and utility signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 that would allow the tribe to purchase, at cost, up to 49 percent of the power generated.
As a public entity, the utility cannot sell power for profit.
Meanwhile, Boettger said there’s still a legal issue ongoing regarding cubic feet per second going over the dam.
The utility does not comment on pending litigation.
Some legal battles have been settled over the past year.
In January, American Whitewater dropped its appeal in federal court that claimed FERC didn’t consider the impacts of the minimum required flow of the falls.
The appeal was dropped in an effort to open communication with the utility.
The state Pollution Control Hearings Board issued an order July 23, 2013, requiring the state Department of Ecology and the utility to conduct an aesthetic flow study within the next three years, then amend the minimum required flow if necessary.
Advocacy groups argue 10-30 cubic feet per second (cfs) isn’t enough flow, and that the permit failed to comply with the Clean Water Act.
Since then, the utility has secured a Clean Water Act permit, Boettger said.
To obtain the full 9 megawatts, the utility has a water right of 1,000 cfs, but an additional 600 cfs is needed.
He said the dam could be created for a smaller amount of production that would use less water, but that may prevent the dam from becoming solvent.