Unexpected Whitewater Release on the Bear in Idaho

Posted: 04/18/2005
by Thomas O'Keefe and Charlie Vincent

This spring the Black Canyon section of the Bear River in SE Idaho ran for the first time in over 5 years. The whitewater flows had been unexpected given the drought conditions the past several years and the low water level in Bear Lake (upstream storage reservoir). Fortunately for local paddlers, the combination of heavy precipitation this past winter and PacifiCorp's scheduled maintenance on the diversion pipe allowed for whitewater releases the weekend of April 16 and 17. The interesting part of the story is that these releases were not specifically required by the new FERC operating license.  These whitewater releases resulted when PacifiCorp chose to supplement the natural flows in Black Canyon during the weekend from the upstream Soda Reservoir and then refill Soda the following week. It was an example of a utility tweaking their operations to provide a great recreational opportunity for whitewater paddlers.

As a result of the spring whitewater release, approximately 40 individuals each day paddled various recreational water craft, including rafts, canoes, and whitewater kayaks through Black Canyon. The feedback from the users was very positive. Black Canyon of the Bear is recognized as one of the outstanding whitewater resources in SE Idaho; unfortunately there has only been sufficient water in the river for whitewater recreation on rare occasions. All of this changes beginning in 2008 when the new FERC license calls for 16 whitewater releases per year. PacifiCorp has already installed new parking and boat launching facilities at the put-in and take-out locations. Additionally, the company has set up a website and flow phone (800-547-1501) with current flow information and scheduled releases.

PacifiCorp received their new FERC operating license for the Bear River projects early in 2004. The new FERC license was based on the Settlement Agreement signed by the 12 government agencies and NGOs involved in the negotiated agreement. AW was involved in the negotiations and one of the signatories to the Settlement Agreement. The first 4 years of the license calls for aquatic monitoring of the Black Canyon section without "scheduled" whitewater releases; however in the event of high river flows "opportunistic" releases are called out in the new FERC license during the 4 years prior to 2008 when the Grace dam is spilling at least 500 cfs. Beginning in 2008 the new FERC license calls for 16 "scheduled" whitewater releases per year providing flows are available in the river.

Many thanks to PacifiCorp and mother nature for offering the local boating community a preliminary introduction to the whitewater "scheduled" releases which will begin in 2008. If you have a chance to boat the Bear in the meantime please be a good neighbor as positive relations with the local community are essential to making future releases a success and that big boat on your roof clearly identifies us as a user group. In particular watch your speed as you pass through the housing area near the take-out (it's posted for 10 mph) and stock up on shuttle snacks in Grace.

For answers to questions on the Bear River Relicensing, please contact Charlie Vincent (charliev@xmission.com), AW representative on the Bear River Environmental Coordination Committee. More information on the Bear River page.