State’s Decision to Dewater Waterfalls Draws Criticism
By: Thomas O'Keefe
State Agency Certification Supports Dewatering Similkameen Falls
Oroville – Today public interest organizations criticized the Washington State Department of Ecology for certifying that a proposed hydropower project would meet state water quality standards, when the project would instead effectively dewater a historic waterfall on the Similkameen River in Okanogan County. The state agency’s decision, known as a “401 Certification” under the federal Clean Water Act, will move forward a proposal by Okanogan PUD to reactivate Enloe Dam for a small amount of hydropower by diverting almost all the water from Similkameen Falls. Ecology’s decision ignores the tremendous public benefit of the Falls for tourism, aesthetics and recreation. The stunning beauty of the Falls has made them the focal point of the newly developed Similkameen River Trail, which will become part of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. If Enloe Dam is reactivated, the viewpoint of this new trail will be a trickle of water. Moreover, Ecology’s decision runs roughshod over the Falls cultural and historical importance to the region’s First Nations and Native American Tribes.
“We are very disappointed with this decision,” said Rich Bowers of the Hydropower Reform Coalition. “A major purpose of the certification is to protect and maintain public values and existing and designated uses of the river. This decision ignores the outstanding aesthetic, recreational and tourism values, which bring significant revenue to the Oroville area. On top of this, we lose the waterfalls itself.”
“It is even more disappointing considering that the proposed project, even with dewatering the Falls, is an economic loser for the utility, for local ratepayers, and for the state,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater. “An economics analysis released earlier this year showed that the utility will lose $26 for every megawatt hour produced at the dam. This has been a major concern for both local ratepayers and Northwest river advocates.”
Okanogan PUD has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to issue a license to install turbines at the existing Enloe Dam, which blocks the Similkameen River about four miles west of Oroville, Washington. Originally built in the early 1900’s, Enloe Dam has not generated hydropower since 1958. The current license application, pending with FERC since 2008, is the PUD’s fourth attempt since the mid-1980’s to add power generation to the dam. Previous licensing efforts failed due to poor economics and fish passage issues.
“Similkameen Falls is a pivot point in our area’s past and future,” said Jere Gillespie with the Columbia Bioregional Education Project. “It is important that the state take the public values provided by Similkameen Falls into account, and not just issue a blanket approval for a proposal that will destroy these values year round, and will at the same time increase electric bills for every Okanogan ratepayer. The price that ratepayers will pay is to gaze at a dried-up waterfall and lost tourist opportunities. How wrong this is.”
“Enloe Dam has not operated for 50 years, and has been controversial for both environmental and economic reasons since it was first built,” said Suzanne Skinner, with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “Allowing a utility to dry up Similkameen Falls and to kill local tourism revenue from the Falls is a poor decision for all of Washington State.”