Whitewater comes roaring back

  • Freefall: An Idaho canyon gets wet after 90 years

    Doug Lindley

GRACE, Idaho - After more than 90 dry years, a canyon near this quiet town recently filled with the roar of whitewater.

Kayakers in mid-May ran the rapids through Black Canyon while a nearby power plant went two days without the river's water. But PacifiCorp of Portland, Ore., didn't release the Bear River back to the canyon out of the goodness of its heart.

Conservationists gathered here said they pressed the company for a year to try out whitewater releases. The company's water diversion permit, granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, expires in 2001, and under new federal rules, whitewater used by recreationists must be given some consideration.

As environmentalists, engineers, consultants and government staffers stood on Turner Bridge in Grace, a usually sleepy town of 1,000, kayakers dashed through whitewater at 700 cubic feet per second (cfs), then 1,000 cfs and finally 1,500 cfs.

PacifiCorp's hydro operator controlled the rates by opening gates at Grace Dam, upstream from the canyon.

Overhead, a helicopter carrying a video camera documented the trials through seven miles of Class IV and V rapids, on a scale where Class VI is extreme, if not impossible. A local police officer was on hand to answer questions and direct traffic - mostly farm trucks that crept carefully across one lane of the bridge.

"Is this some sort of a club?" asked one puzzled woman as the kayakers paddled into view.

Blasting through

The rapid directly below the bridge, Grace Falls, featured a 10-foot drop punctuated by large lava boulders, and the first three kayaks to hit the falls made clean runs. As they waited in the eddies below to offer help, one of the next kayakers flipped, causing some in the crowd to gasp and hold their breath until the kayaker rolled upright and paddled away.

A light spattering of rain began as the last boats, two catarafts, made their approach. The first boater pulled free; the second flipped. Kayaks exploded from the eddies like neon water skippers to offer help, but an on-shore rescue team secured both the floating boater and the bottoms-up cataraft and, in minutes, both were ready to continue downriver.

"I think that's the boat they wanted me to ride in," said Dave Eskelsen, a PacifiCorp representative who watched from the bridge.

Even as boaters were paddling through the waves, a companion study on trout was under way downstream. Although the river is diverted through a large pipe, natural springs in the canyon supply cold, clear water, which, by the final three miles, adds up to 50 to 80 cfs of prime trout water. Before the test, local anglers expressed concern that high-water releases for whitewater recreation could flush out resident trout and ruin a popular fishing spot.

PacifiCorp pressed 20 hatchery trout into service, outfitted them with radio tags and released them before the whitewater test to see how they would handle the high flows. Later reports were encouraging, as only two of the fish washed downstream.

"We can have fisheries and boating on this river, which is a big plus," said Rich Bowers, executive director of the American Whitewater Affiliation.

Grace residents seemed taken aback by the hullabaloo, which wasn't surprising since the Bear River has been diverted around Black Canyon since 1908.

But all that could change. Challenging whitewater is scarce in this high desert country, said Mark H. White, one of the test kayakers and chairman of the board for the Utah Rivers Council. He called the Black Canyon the best boating within five hours of Salt Lake City, so that if PacifiCorp scheduled regular whitewater releases through Black Canyon on summer weekends, "lots of cash could move through Grace."

Boaters completed detailed surveys after each run and responded in a taped interview when it was all over. They seemed to agree that the 1,500 cfs run was the most challenging and most fun.

Not so enthusiastic

Eskelsen of PacifiCorp was cautious, saying that 1,500 cfs was an expert-only kind of run. Further-more, high releases mean more lost revenue for the power company. "We have to balance the interests of wildlife, recreation and operation," he said.

But a door has been opened: Could this small canyon set a precedent for other relicensing attempts in the West? Andrew Fahrland, representative of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, said that between now and the year 2010, Idaho has 14 hydropower projects involving 16 dams up for relicensing; Montana has five projects and 14 dams; Utah, nine projects with nine dams; and Wyoming, one dam.

Although PacifiCorp made no promises, optimism ran high among the participants. White of Utah Rivers Council said, "Odds are good to get some recreational boating on that stretch, but, of course, not until 2001, when PacifiCorp's license expires. They won't let go of that water any sooner than they have to."

Idaho Rivers United spokeswoman Liz Paul said, "We're just glad the company decided to conduct this test so that whitewater recreation could be fully considered."

Marjanna Hulet teaches writing at Idaho State University in Pocatello, and is a whitewater rafter.

You can ...

* Contact Idaho Rivers United at 208/343-7481, or,

* American Whitewater at 301/589-9453, or,

* Idaho Rivers United at 208/343-7481, or,

* Dave Eskelsen of PacifiCorp at 801/220-2447.

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