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New Hydropower License for Chelan Gorge (WA)

Posted: 11/11/2006
by Thomas O'Keefe

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has just released a new 50-year hydropower license for the Chelan Hydroelectric Project (P-637). The project is at the outlet of Lake Chelan, a 1,486-foot deep, 55-mile-long natural glacial lake, that drains into the Columbia River through the Chelan Gorge. For more than 75 years a 3.9 mile section of this gorge was dewatered for most of the year, and no permanent fish habitat existed between the dam and the powerhouse.

On October 8, 2003 American Whitewater joined other stakeholders in signing the Settlement Agreement that proposed a new management plan for this river. The new agreement which has now been formally reviewed by FERC allows Chelan PUD to continue generating hydropower while providing a new minimum flow and supplemental flows to provide spawning habitat for ESA-listed fish. In addition, scheduled releases will provide whitewater recreational opportunities that have been impacted by project operations.

As part of the new license, Chelan PUD will conduct a three-year monitoring study of whitewater recreation on the Chelan Gorge. We will be discussing the timeline for this study in the coming weeks and will provide additional information on when whitewater flows will begin. During this study phase, the gorge will be available to boaters on the second and fourth weekends in July and September (Flows on Saturday will be between 300 cfs and 375 cfs; flows on Sunday will be between 400 cfs and 450 cfs). The three-year study will assess demand for the reach, suitability of selected flow leves, and logistics associated with providing whitewater boating opportunities.

AW's Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director Thomas O'Keefe notes, "We are excited to see a formally dry river restored for the benefit of fish and paddlers, and look forward to seeing this river come back to life."

In the coming months AW will be working with Chelan PUD and the boating community on an education and safety plan for whitewater releases on the Chelan Gorge. This is a challenging class V run. Participants on an initial flow study compared it to runs like the Little White Salmon and Upper Upper Cispus. We will be urging boaters to approach this run with extreme caution as it has only been run once and should be treated as an exploratory river.

FERC's Detailed Analysis of Whitewater (read full license order)

67. I will now turn to the non-mandatory components of the Agreement beginning with the whitewater boating monitoring study and the licensee’s concerns of liability associated with providing whitewater boating flows. Chelan PUD has consistently expressed concern about its potential liability for accidents that could occur from attempting to boat the Chelan River due to the difficulty of access in the Chelan River gorge, the difficulty of the whitewater runs, and the difficulty of rescue. Working with American Whitewater, Chelan PUD has agreed to develop and conduct a three-year monitoring study during which it would release boating flows on the second and fourth weekends in July and September (Flows on Saturday shall be between 300 cfs and 375 cfs; flows on Sunday shall be between 400 cfs and 450 cfs), provided that a minimum of six kayakers make a reservation on the Thursday prior to the scheduled release date, are physically present at the designated put-in by 10 am on the date of release, and liability insurance protecting Chelan PUD is in place. Additionally, only non-motorized, hard-shelled kayaks suitable for Class V whitewater would be allowed; no kayaker under 18 would be allowed to float; and each kayaker must sign a liability waiver in a form satisfactory to Chelan PUD prior to launching his or her kayak in the Chelan River. Following the three-year study, Chelan PUD in consultation with American Whitewater would evaluate whether to modify flow levels (not to exceed 450 cfs), the number of boaters required to make the release (no less than six), and the reservation system. Chelan PUD would continue to provide releases on the second and fourth weekends in July and September for the remainder of the license term provided that the above conditions are met (Agreement Article 11(h)(8) ).

68. The whitewater boating feasibility study conducted at the project found that at flows from 275 to 475 cfs, the Chelan River is boatable by skilled Class V paddlers and would likely attract boaters because of the scenic beauty of the canyon; clear, warm water; and the number of challenging rapids in a short reach. In the final EA, staff recommended monitoring actual use of the flow releases to enable a more informed decision on whether the releases should continue, because it is unknown just how much use this resource would attract (Final EA at 227). Staff also concluded that any long-term release program and the monitoring study should be contingent on a threshold number of participants. Thus, the information obtained from the monitoring study would be helpful in designing a release program. Although American Whitewater and Chelan PUD intend to work together to obtain liability insurance and legislative changes to state statutes to reduce liability concerns, requiring suitable liability insurance or legislative changes to be in place prior to providing any whitewater flow releases could unduly delay or obviate the monitoring study and its full implementation. Furthermore, safety and liability concerns are not uncommon issues associated with whitewater boating and the fact that there is risk involved has not precluded the Commission from requiring whitewater access and flow releases (See, e.g., Northern States Power Company, 79 FERC ¶62,170 (1997) and Georgia Power Company, 77 FERC ¶62,002 (1996)). Therefore, I have included in Article 407 the substance of Agreement Article 11(h) that requires the licensee to implement the whitewater boating monitoring study, but without the provisions requiring liability insurance or, in the alternative, changes in state liability laws to be in place prior to providing the releases (see Agreement Articles 11(h)(10) and (11)).

Thomas O'Keefe
3537 NE 87th St.
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 425-417-9012