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Project Background

The Pine Project (FERC Project No. 2486) was constructed between 1920 and 1922, creating an impoundment that inundated a river valley containing two 8-foot waterfalls, one 12-foot waterfall, and 0.5 mile of rapids on the Pine River. The project is within a state forest area, 12.7 miles upstream of the river's confluence with the Menominee River, which is the border between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

In 1965, Wisconsin designated the Pine River and its tributary the Popple River as state wild rivers. Boaters, including members of affiliate University of Wisconsin Hoofers were instrumental in developing the legislation that created this program in response to dam threats on the whitewater sections of the Wolf and other nearby rivers. With Governor Gaylord Nelson as a strong supporter of the state program, these efforts eventually influenced the development of the Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act after Nelson joined the US Senate. On the Pine River, there are no other existing or proposed hydropower projects in the basin. While state wild rivers are managed to assure their preservation, protection and enhancement of their natural beauty, unique recreational and other inherent values, hydropower projects are allowed to continue operating if they have a valid FERC license and were in existence prior to designation as a wild river, as was the case with this project on the Pine River.

The Pine River hydro project consists of a 628-foot-long impoundment structure, approximately 42 feet high, comprised of a 146-foot-long dam, a 358-foot-long earth dike containing a concrete corewall, a 124-foot-long concrete spillway section with seven taintor gates, and a concrete gravity non-overflow section. The reservoir has a surface area of 180 acres and total storage capacity of 1,540 acre-feet. The penstocks divert up to 640 cfs of water from the reservoir around a bypass channel that contains a 0.4 mile section of high quality whitewater, that is dewatered except for few days of the year when reservoir inflow exceeds capacity of the penstocks.

Relicensing the project

On December 23, 1991, the Wisconsin Electric Power Company (Wisconsin Electric) filed an application for a new license for continued operation of this 3.6-megawatt facility (FERC Project 2486). At this time, Wisconsin Electric proposed to change the project's mode of operation from peaking (retaining impoundment inflows for later release and power generation at high-demand periods) to run-of-river (inflows equaling outflows), and to provide additional environmental enhancements.

American Whitewater formally intervened in the proceeding on behalf of local whitewater recreational interests and brought together a coalition of groups that included: American Rivers, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter, Chicago Whitewater Association, University of Wisconsin Hoofers Outing Club, Badger State Boating Society, American Canoe Association, Cascaders Canoe and Kayak Club, Izaak Walton League of America and its Wisconsin Division, Boat Busters Anonymous, Whitewater Specialty's Inc, and Green Bay Paddlers United (FERC eLibrary Submittal 19920804-0309). It was the first project in the Midwest where American Whitewater filed to intervene and we made a request to the Commission to require “the applicant to remove this project and all existing structures, in an environmentally sound and safe manner, to return the affected area to its prior project condition.”This motion to intervene from the Boating Groups was protested by Wisconsin Electric but granted by FERC.

American Whitewater’s Requests

The Boating Groups opposed issuance of a new license, and proposed that the project be removed and the site restored to enhance wild river values and whitewater boating opportunities. While the specific characteristics of the buried rapids remain unknown, removal of the dam would restore a 0.75-mile section of rapids including the three waterfalls that is currently inundated, and a 0.4-mile section in the bypass reach that is currently de-watered, creating a 2.5 mile whitewater stretch beginning upstream of the project at LaSalle Falls rapids.

The project has a small generating capacity and produces uneconomical power, whereas project removal would provide a substantial extension—now inundated by the project's reservoir—of the existing advanced-to-expert whitewater run of the Pine River in the project's bypassed reach. Project removal would eliminate a barrier to fish passage, and would restore the wild and scenic character of the Pine River corridor.

Accepting the fact that the project would likely be relicensed, Wisconsin DNR requested that Wisconsin Electric study project retirement during the term of a new license and file a plan and request to remove the project by the end of the term of the new license in 2025. This request was designed to provide the public with an opportunity to enjoy a natural river, which the DNR recognized as a positive economic benefit. Essentially agreeing with the Boater Grours, DNR stated that removal of the project would produce significant ecological, recreational, scenic, aesthetic and cultural benefits by restoring over a mile of free-flowing river currently buried by the reservoir, enhancing recreational kayaking and canoeing opportunities, and furthering Wisconsin's objectives of having a free flowing wild river, all consistent with the state’s wild river legislation.

On August 27, 1991, the midwest’s first formal whitewater flow release study was held in the bypass reach. It was coordinated in cooperation with Wisconsin Electric, Wisconsin DNR, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The study concluded that a flow release of at least 225 cfs into the channel would provide whitewater opportunities for all levels of boaters, including class IV paddlers. The test also demonstrated that without ramping following the release (here, gradual reduction of flows), numerous fish would be stranded after the release (fish stranding had been a key consideration that led to the decision to manage the project as run-of-river instead of peaking). A review of monthly flow duration curves from 1923 to 1975 determined that, between April and September, natural flows exceed 865 cfs approximately 32 days during that six-month period. Seventy per cent of these days occur in April and May, with the remainder occurring in June, July, and September.

In the alternative where the project was not decomissioned, the Boating Groups and the National Park Service requested a license requirement for four to six weekend whitewater releases during the summer, of at least 225 cfs and lasting 4-6 hours each day. In response to this proposal, Wisconsin DNR, stated that it considered provision of artificial flow releases for whitewater boating in the bypass channel to be inconsistent with the Pine River's wild river status. Further concerns were raised regarding fish stranding. Wisconsin Electric reported that few whitewater boaters used the bypassed reach (not surprising given the fact that the flow is usually diverted), and noted that other opportunities for whitewater boating exist in the region.

FERC’s decision

FERC issued a new license (73 FERC 61,346) for the project in 1995 concluding in their opinion that continued operation of the project, would result in minor adverse impacts on the environment that would be largely mitigated and offset by project benefits. The proposal to remove the project was thus denied, but operation was changed from peaking to run-of-river.

FERC concluded that the benefits of issuing a new license for the project outweighed the recreation benefits and scenic values that immediate dam-removal would bring. They contended that there are other rivers containing whitewater nearby and further stated that removing the project would eliminate other recreation benefits of the project which include a camping area and boat launch for recreation on the reservoir (hardly a limited resource in northern Wisconsin which has thousands of glacier-formed lakes that already provide a rich resource for flatwater recreation).

FERC also denied the request to provide whitewater releases on the grounds that fishery resources would be impacted, because other regional whitewater opportunities exist, and due to the economic cost (lost generating potential) required for ramping that would be necessary to minimize fishery impacts.

Requirements of the 1995 License

Changing the project to run-of-river is a benefit to the ecological resources of the river and also means that boating opportunities in the bypass reach have been enhanced—a pulse of water associated with spring snow melt or a storm event that exceeds the capacity of the penstocks can no longer be stored in the reservoir for later release, but is now released back into the bypass channel.

FERC also formally recognized that whitewater boating does occur on the short bypass reach on the few days of the year when flows exceed the penstock capacity. A requirement was written into the license for Wisconsin Electric to provide a telephone hotline (906.779.2518) to communicate daily flows at the powerplant and in the bypassed reach so the public can know when flows are sufficient for boating. With this recognized use the public is now specifically allowed to access the river within project boundaries for whitewater boating activities.

Wisconsin Electric was required to reactive and continuing funding the USGS gauge on the Pine River downstream of the project as a realtime station (this provides flows below the powerhouse so does not tell you what’s in the bypass reach but at least we’ll know that when this flow exceeds 640 cfs there has to be some water in the bypass channel).

FERC declined to adopt license articles along the lines of the Wisconsin DNR request asking for a study to decommission the project at the end of the current license. While removal of the project would be consistent with certain scenic and recreational values supported by Wisconsin's wild river legislation, FERC concluded that this did not constitute a need to study project removal at this time as a specific license requirement. FERC noted that the question of decommissioning could be appropriately addressed in 30 years when the current project expires. The good news is that through the relicensing process a seed has been planted and while not a specific requirement of the license, it appears likely that decommissioning the project will be seriously considered at the end of the current license in 2025.

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