How to share a dammed river

Boaters are joining wildlife advocates, farmers and power companies to parcel out each cubic foot of Western rivers.

 

Kayakers come from hundreds of miles in every direction each April for the Black Canyon Whitewater Festival on the Bear River near Grace, Idaho. They come to take advantage of the big waves that race through the tight basalt canyon for just a few days a year. Live music and kegs of beer await boaters after a challenging 2-mile race. It feels like an ancient ritual, celebrating the surprise rush of water through a usually dry canyon, but it’s neither a natural phenomenon or a gift from above; it’s a carefully devised flow written into federal code, with every cubic-foot-per-second negotiated at a series of often-lengthy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) meetings.

The festival takes place during a “recreational release,” in which the power company spills water from behind its dam expressly for kayakers. PacifiCorp, the electric utility that operates the hydropower plant on the Bear River, has to release water for kayakers in Black Canyon because, in 1986, the Electric Consumers Protection Act put recreation and wildlife habitat on an equal footing with power generation.

blackcanyonwhitewaterfestthumb-jpg
Onlookers watch as a kayaker navigate the falls during last year's Black Canyon Whitewater Festival.
Black Canyon Whitewater Festival

Every 30 years or so, privately owned power plants have to renew their federal licenses with the FERC to operate on public rivers. Over three hundred plants across the country – from Maine to Alaska – are up for relicensing within the next decade. One of them is a small 3.85-megawatt plant on the Weber River outside Ogden, Utah. It was built in 1910, and its license expires in 2020.  In anticipation of its renewal, discussions about the river’s fate are now underway, giving recreational boaters a chance to sit at the table with wildlife advocates, the power company, farmers and state agencies to figure out how they will share the river – cubic foot by cubic foot.

Right now, a 2-mile stretch near the mouth of Weber Canyon is dry. A reservoir impounds the river’s flow, which is then diverted to a power plant downstream. Charlie Vincent, a Utah-based volunteer with American Whitewater, and other recreationists are using the relicensing period to advocate for more water and better access to the Weber for kayaking. Boaters aren’t the only ones hoping for concessions from the power company. Sensitive fish species like the Bonneville cutthroat trout and the bluehead sucker need to be able to migrate upstream past the diversion dam to spawn, so Trout Unlimited and the state fisheries agency are at the table, too. 

When the power plant at Grace, Idaho, was completed in 1927, Calvin Coolidge was president. There wasn’t a Clean Water Act or even an Environmental Protection Agency until 1970, and the Endangered Species Act didn’t come along until 1973. Whitewater kayaking was hardly a sport back then, let alone a priority. So the relicensing application period is a golden opportunity for recreation and conservation interests to get involved in a process they weren’t a part of 30 years ago.

To negotiate for recreational releases on the Bear River, Charlie Vincent went to meetings – sometimes all-day meetings – over the course of five years, and as a result PacifiCorp has released prescribed whitewater flows into the Black Canyon several times a year since 2008. Although he doesn’t kayak much since his kid was born, Vincent still volunteers for American Whitewater. “The more people who are interested in the sport and the place where it happens,” he says, “the more it perpetuates the opportunity for others to do it and share in it.”

At the head of the Bear River-divvying table was PacifiCorp’s principal scientist for hydro resources, Eve Davies. “We worked really hard to craft an agreement” about the Bear, she says; the increased flows were requested not just for boaters, but for Bonneville cutthroat trout, too. The turn-of-the-century set-up on the Bear at Grace is similar to that on the Weber, where the river is backed up behind a dam and funneled into a pipe, leaving the narrow Black Canyon dry. Since 2008, PacifiCorp has increased base flows in the channel at all times for the fish. During recreational releases, the utility turns hydroelectric generation off completely, letting the full river rush through the canyon as whitewater.

At a conference room in a historic hotel in Ogden in May, Davies explains how the ancient Weber hydroplant works to a roomful of kayakers, who have been invited to a focus group with PacifiCorp and the FERC. They’re asked to describe their dream flows: How much water it would it take for them to drive the hour up from Salt Lake City to run the river? Naturally, they want the flows to be “epic.” So Davies tries to remind the group that the levels are first and foremost dictated by Mother Nature. She tells them she can’t guarantee that there will be water in the river for kayaking every spring, but she offers to alert them, via email, whenever there’s enough water to both run the power plant and allow the “extra” flow into the dry river channel. 

In addition to trying to figure out how to satisfy the kayakers, Davies is heading up a fisheries working group that’s looking into fish-passage design. In a hypothetical Weber, the Utah Division of Water Resources would like to see bigger rushes of water from the dam for trout. Davies has to remind the biologists as well that drier might be the new normal for the Weber. What everyone seems to want from the river is more of it, and that’s something that no amount of compromise is going to be able to give. 

“Water in a river is a public resource – that’s undeniable,” says Charlie Vincent, who believes that the relicensing process is as fair as a federally mandated process can be. Eve Davies is optimistic that the negotiations on the Weber will lead to consensus and a signed agreement that she can send to the FERC. If all goes well, in 2020, the dam will be operated not only to provide electricity generation, but a chance for native fish to spawn and as many days of recreational whitewater as the river – and PacifiCorp – can spare.

Jennifer Pemberton reports on community and the environment for Utah Public Radio. She writes about the West from her home in Logan, Utah.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Charlie Vincent has just one child.

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