Twin Falls, Idaho - In the end, it wasn't even close. On Feb. 13 the state's five highest elected officials unanimously rejected a proposed dam on the Snake River at Auger Falls.
The vote came despite developer Steve
Harmsen's state water quality permit from the Federal Energy
What led the Idaho Land
Board, composed of Gov. Phill Batt, Secretary of State Pete
Cenarrusa, Attorney General Al Lance, Controller J.D. Williams and
Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox, to stop a seemingly
unstoppable hydroelectric project?
national implications because I've never heard of a licensed hydro
project being turned down before," says Laird Lucas, an attorney
based in Boise with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.
The board cited the public trust doctrine in
denying the dam, which would have dewatered seven rapids to produce
43.6 megawatts of electricity. All of the power would have been
shipped to Utah.
Dating back to the ancient
Romans and written into the Magna Carta, the public trust doctrine
holds that natural phenomena such as flowing water are held by the
state for the benefit of all. Its most significant application in
the West came in 1983, when the doctrine was used to bar Los
Angeles from exercising its vested water rights to drain Mono
More than anything, the board's decision
represents a major change in the attitude of local citizens about
this "working" stretch of the Middle Snake River, which already
accommodates seven dams. For decades it has been diverted for
irrigation, leaving what remains sluggish and heavily laced with
dirt, farm chemicals and other industrial pollutants. Algae grow
thick in the river.
Twenty years ago, the
citizens of Twin Falls, Jerome and other local agricultural
communities would not have voiced much opposition to the project,
says Roy Prescott, a county commissioner and rancher in Jerome. But
the dire condition of the river has changed
"Maybe we're at a point in time where
we just say no - just because it's wrong," says
At a public hearing about the hydro
project this January, some 200 people turned out, but the only
supporters were Harmsen, his consultants, and people from whom he's
buying riverfront property. Liz Paul, staffer with Idaho Rivers
United, said the hearing showed that "people want the Snake River
to be healthy and (left) in good shape for their kids."
Auger Falls is important because for two miles
the river flows freely at the bottom of a canyon 480 feet deep.
Harmsen had agreed to let the city's sewer plant spill treated
water onto 200 acres he owns; now, ammonia-tainted water gets
dumped directly into the river, causing some boaters to rename
Auger Falls, "Sewer Falls." Harmsen also offered to turn any
remaining riverfront property into a public park and to stabilize
eight miles of streambanks.
The developer, who
lives in Salt Lake City, has said he will appeal Idaho's turndown,
probably in court. He must resolve the issue quickly since his FERC
license expires Aug. 31.
writer covers natural resources for the Times-News in Twin Falls,
Intern Jenny Emery contributed to this