OROVILLE — Aesthetics of Similkameen Falls must be considered if the Okanogan County PUD rebuilds the Enloe Dam to generate power, the Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled last week.
The board affirmed the state Department of Ecology’s water quality certification for the project, adding the condition that aesthetic values for both the dam and the falls will be monitored and evaluated if the dam is rebuilt to hold more water.
PUD general manager John Grubich said the utility is reviewing the ruling to determine if it impacts its newly-won license to rebuild the dam, or affects the cost of the project.
He said the PUD could allow the ruling to stand, ask the Board to reconsider its decision, or appeal it to the state Supreme Court.
“What this means is that the PUD can move forward if they want to,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a state Department of Ecology spokeswoman, “and Ecology will work with the PUD as outlined in this order.”
She said the PUD may have to alter some of its flows to account for aesthetics, but only if those flows don’t impact fish habitat by increasing water temperature or reducing dissolved oxygen.
The 35-page ruling came on July 23, less than two weeks after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a 50-year license to rebuild the dam. It was initially built in 1920 but stopped producing electricity in 1958 when it became cheaper for the PUD to buy power.
Five groups — American Whitewater, Sierra Club’s Washington chapter, the North Cascades Conservation Council, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, and the Columbia River Bioregional Education Project — appealed the state’s water quality certification for the project last summer, raising the question of whether the certification properly looked at the aesthetic value of the river both at the dam and the falls some 350 feet below the dam.
They argued that the larger dam will allow the PUD to basically dewater the Similkameen River, affecting its aesthetic value by reducing the river flows to little more than a trickle.
According to the board’s findings, natural flows in the river range from 500 cubic feet per second in September to 7,000 cubic feet per second in the spring. The FERC license allows the river to drop to 30 cubic feet per second from mid-July to mid-September, and 10 cubic feet during the remaining months, as long as temperature and dissolved oxygen are protected for fish habitat.
“Ecology’s authority to address aesthetic flows in (water quality) certification has been rarely exercised,” the decision said, noting that flow studies are usually isolated to large falls that attract a significant number of people. And while the number of people visiting a falls may be a factor, the board ruled that aesthetics can be raised as an issue regardless of the location or number of visitors.
The ruling does not stop the project, but further throws into question its financial feasibility, said Rich Bowers, coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a consortium of conservation and recreation groups including the five that appealed Ecology’s water quality certification.
It means Ecology will not only monitor temperature and dissolved oxygen resulting from the reduced flows from the dam, but also the aesthetic value. The state can then reduce the amount of water that the PUD uses for power generation for either reason.
“You can’t build a $65 million project and not know the basic information on how much it’s going to generate,” Bowers said.
He added that the Board’s ruling has ramifications statewide.
“This order, without a doubt, requires Ecology to look at those issues regardless of where it is, or how many people come to see it,” he said. “It puts aesthetic values at the forefront, and that’s a great thing.”