Idaho canal company appeals Bear River Dam ruling

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:50 PM

Todd Dvorak

PRESTON,Idaho— Leaders of a private canal company seeking to build a $27 million dam along the Bear River in southeastern Idaho are asking the state’s water chief to reverse a July ruling that dealt a potentially fatal blow to the project.

The Twin Lakes Canal Co. has filed an administrative appeal with the Idaho Department of Water Resources over the agency’s initial denial of a winter water right permit — one of a handful of permits and licenses the company needs to build and operate the dam.

In July, an agency administrator ruled the dam along the Oneida Narrows section of the river near Preston would conflict with multi-state water compact and potentially the rights of irrigators as far downstream as Utah. Program Manager James Cefalo also concluded the public benefits of building the dam don’t outweigh the benefits of leaving that stretch of the river free flowing and untouched.

Canal company officials say Cefalo’s decision contained factual errors, analytically flawed and in some places gave too much weight for considering the public interest at stake in the project.

"Our appeal points out a lot of discrepancies in that decision, especially with the public interest section," Clare Bosen, president of the canal company, told The Associated Press Monday. "We’re confident that this is something that meets public interest goals for clean water, renewable energy and improving the economy."

The decision on the water right application now rests with Gary Spackman, director of IDWR. Spackman said he expects to issue his decision in late October.

In the meantime, the canal company is moving forward with other aspects of the project. Bosen said project consultants are filing final reports on water quality and other issues to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The proposal envisions a 108-foot high dam capable of generating 10 megawatts of power and a reservoir capable of storing water that can extend the growing season for 230 canal company stockholders. Boson said changes in climate and other factors are enabling farmers to get an earlier start in the spring and run later in the fall, but the lack of storage water is hurting the ability to take advantage of the opportunities.

"This year we’re out of water already. There was a lot of land that wasn’t planted and a lot right now that is not getting irrigated.," he said.

The dam is proposed along a stretch more than four miles downstream of a hydroelectric dam operated by PacifiCorp Energy and more than 25 miles upstream of the Cutler Dam in Utah’s Cache Valley. The utility initially threw its support behind the proposed dam, but has since backed off after determining a new dam would conflict with its existing hydroelectric license.

The project also has its earned share of foes from the conservation world.

The river, which drains an area of 6,900 square miles in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho and ultimately empties into the Great Salt Lake, is a highly used trout fishery and many of the animal species in the region rely on the water and riparian areas for food, cover and nesting.

The river is home to the Bonneville cutthroat trout, one of 14 cutthroat species in the West. The fish isn’t listed as a threatened or endangered species, but in 2006 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game put in place more restrictive fishing regulations to help protect it in the Bear River.

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