Idaho just says no to hydro dam

  • "Sewer Falls" will stay open to kayakers

    for now
 

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 Regulatory Commission.

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?

"This has 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 Lake.

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 everything.

"Maybe we're at a point in time where we just say no - just because it's wrong," says Prescott.

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.

The writer covers natural resources for the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Intern Jenny Emery contributed to this story.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz