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Federal Regulators Recommend Denial of License for New Bear River Dam (ID)

Posted: 10/02/2015
by Thomas O'Keefe

Citing a host of environmental concerns raised by American Whitewater and our partners, the federal government has recommended denial of an application seeking to build a 109-foot-tall hydroelectric dam on the Bear River in southeast Idaho.
In December of 2014 American Whitewater and Idaho Rivers jointly filed a motion before the Federal Regulatory Commission in protest of the proposed Bear River Narrows Hydroelectric Project on the grounds that the project would materially interfere with the substantial mitigation completed by PacifiCorp for their existing project on the Bear River, the developer does not possess and lacks the ability to secure the required water right to operate this proposed project, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has established the reach as a protected area from hydropower development.
This week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed with us and in their Environmental Impact Statement recommended that the Commission not issue a license for the proposed project.
Commission staff agreed with our view that the Oneida Narrows represents a regionally unique and important river recreational resource that would be destroyed by the proposed dam, for which mitigation is not possible. The project would inundate nearly all of the Oneida Narrows section of the Bear River under a 4.5 mile long reservoir. Oneida Narrows is a beautiful Class I-II reach of the Bear River suitable for beginner and intermediate kayakers, canoeists, and rafters. Increasingly, it is also used for tubing. It is distinct from other sections of the Bear in many ways, including offering moderate whitewater, open canyon scenery, and daily summer flows that support whitewater paddling. It is a recreational treasure that the proposed hydropower project would destroy.
The following excerpt from the Environmental Impact Statement provides the reasoning behind the Commission’s decision:
Based on our independent review of agency and public comments filed on this project and our review of the environmental and economic effects of the proposed project and its alternatives, we select the no-action alternative [not to build the dam] as the preferred alternative. The overall public benefits of the no-action alternative would exceed those of Twin Lakes’ proposal [to build the dam], because of the unavoidable adverse environmental effects. These unavoidable adverse effects would include:
1. loss of a 4.5-mile section of the Bear River with outstandingly remarkable recreational values, as designated by BLM in its wild and scenic eligibility report (BLM, 1995), including a regionally significant recreational river fishery and whitewater resource in an undeveloped canyon with easy and open accessibility to the public; 
2. substantial reduction in the size of the cutthroat trout fishery, a fishery of recreational significance, because of the permanent loss of 4.5 miles of mainstem Bear River fluvial BCT habitat;
3. substantial reduction in the diversity or population of up to 48 state-designated sensitive wildlife species because of the permanent loss of about 425 acres of wildlife habitat along the Bear River riparian corridor from inundation and proposed project facilities; habitat that is seldom replicated along the 80-milelong reach between the Soda development and Great Salt Lake;
4. permanent loss of 249 acres of designated PacifiCorp-owned conservation land that is a critical component of the Bear River Project licensing settlement agreement, 202 acres of which are within the existing Bear River Project’s project boundary;
5. permanent loss of 55 acres of designated Research Natural Area/Area of Critical Environmental Concern land managed by BLM and designed to protect sensitive plants (e.g., bigtooth maple, box-elder riparian, Rocky Mountain juniper, and bunchgrass) and wildlife (e.g., bald eagle and rock squirrel habitats); and
6. degradation of aesthetics via the conversion of the scenic Oneida Narrows into a hydroelectric project with a large dam, powerhouse, transmission facilities, and roads.
Although Twin Lakes proposes measures to mitigate some of the adverse effects described above and staff recommends additional measures to provide additional mitigation for adverse effects, those measures would not adequately offset the adverse effects of constructing and operating a new major hydroelectric project on a currently scenic river reach in an undeveloped canyon with remarkable recreational, geological, and wildlife values and public access, unlike other reaches within a 2 to 3 hour drive (reaches of the Snake River are the nearest comparable river reaches). Consequently, we conclude that issuing a license for the proposed project would not be in the public interest.
While the recommendation to deny a license for this project represents an important victory that we have worked for years to secure, the Commissioners at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission still need to make a formal decision. The Commissioners generally defer to the findings of staff, but our work will continue to make sure that this project does not receive a license. Our goal remains to keep this reach of the Bear River free flowing for recreation, native trout, and public use and enjoyment.
Additional Information:
Read the Environmental Impact Statement Here
Read the most recent comments of American Whitewater and Idaho Rivers United Here
Thomas O'Keefe
3537 NE 87th St.
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 425-417-9012

Associated Projects

Bear River Restoration (ID)
Hydropower relicensing on the Bear River offered an opportunity to restore aquatic resources and recreational opportunities on this river.