Bear River water right denied: Oneida Narrows dam proposal suffers major setback

BOISE — Idaho Rivers United helped achieve a big win for the Bear River in southeast Idaho this week when the Idaho Department of Water Resources denied a water right that would have facilitated construction of a new dam at Oneida Narrows.

In a July 26 Preliminary Order, IDWR Hearing Officer James Cefalo denied the application by Twin Lakes Canal Co. for a 17,300-acre-foot water right. The water right would have been used to store irrigation water behind the new dam and to generate hydropower. IRU intervened in the case to fight the water right.

“The public interests associated with the Bear River in its current state far outweigh the public interests associated with the proposed project,” Cefalo wrote in his 30-page order denying the new water right.

IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis said the preliminary order is a “significant step” toward protecting the fish, wildlife and recreational resources of the Bear River Narrows.

“Since 2002, when parties came together to sign a major settlement agreement for other hydro projects on the Bear, millions of dollars have been spent restoring the river,” Lewis said. “This order helps guarantee these restoration efforts will continue into the future. For many reasons, we knew from the start that the Twin Lakes proposal was a bad one. The IDWR hearing officer agreed with us.” 

In arguments at a formal hearing in March 2012, IRU, PacifiCorp, Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Franklin County Fish and Game Association and other concerned parties argued that the proposed water right does not meet the local public interest and would undermine the 2002 settlement agreement on the operation of existing Bear River dams and hydro facilities.

The 2002 settlement followed three years of negotiations and marked agreement among varying parties for the future operations of PacifiCorp’s Bear River Hydropower Complex, which consisted of four dams, reservoirs and hydro generation plants. One dam was removed as a result of the settlement.

“The settlement set the stage for improving water quality, wildlife habitat and recreation and fishing opportunities — and serves as an example for negotiations in other parts of Idaho,” Lewis said. “Twin Lakes Canal Co.’s application for a water right to build a big new dam is a step backward for a river where people of diverse interests came together to settle their differences and find common ground 10 years ago.”

If parties do not file administrative appeals within 14 days the preliminary order will become final. If the final order is appealed the decision can be subject to further review in district court.