Steps must be taken to give Boise River all it deserves

This guest opinion by IRU Boise River Campaign Coordinator Liz Paul was published in the Idaho Statesman March 11. It can be read at the Statesman website here.

Late at night on Feb. 3, with just the fish and wildlife to bear witness, water flow in the Boise River below Barber Dam was almost instantaneously reduced to a trickle. At 10:55 p.m., the flow through the hydropower plant in Barber Dam was approximately 240 cubic feet per second (cfs). At 10:58 p.m., a power grid fluctuation tripped the powerhouse offline, stopping flows in the Boise River below the dam. Minutes later only about 10 cfs were leaking through the dam into the river channel. Both the primary and the secondary alert system failed, and the project operator was never notified.

Mile by mile, hour by hour, the river slowly drained away, and by approximately 2 p.m. on Feb. 4, the U.S. Geological Survey gauge 11 miles downstream at the Glenwood Bridge registered one of the lowest flows recorded in 40 years, approximately 60 cfs. The bulk of the river was wastewater and stormwater entering the river 5 to 10 miles downstream of Barber Dam. Our beloved Boise River, robbed of its life-giving water, was dealt a terrific blow.

About 6 a.m. on Feb. 4, the pool behind Barber Dam, temporarily lowered so repairs could be made on the 109-year-old deteriorating dam, filled up and water flowed through the construction site, over the equipment, into the exposed interior of the dam, and down the river channel. When the operator restarted the plant at approximately 8 a.m. on Feb. 4, he boosted flows to about 450 cfs, sending an unexpected pulse of water downstream for many hours in order to draw down the reservoir pool.

The ecological impact of almost completely dewatering more than 10 miles of the Boise River for approximately seven hours and the subsequent release of a pulse of high water is not immediately evident. The impact of stress on adult fish, the loss of flow to fish eggs, hatchlings and insects and the inundation of bird nests will be better understood when data is collected next summer and fall. What is undisputed is that the Boise River fishery needs winter flow. According to Idaho Fish and Game, the urban reach of the Boise River most affected by the dewatering supports some of the most intensive fishing pressure in the state.

The dewatering of the Boise River was easily preventable. Carelessness, possibly negligence by project operator Enel Green Power North America and project owner Ada County, along with a failure of oversight from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a number of other federal and state agencies contributed to this accident. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and others must conduct a thorough investigation into what happened and why. Responsible parties must be held accountable. Steps must be taken to safeguard the Boise River and our community from future problems at Barber Dam. Public confidence must be restored if the hydro project is to continue operating. The Boise River deserves the best we can give it.

Liz Paul is the Boise River campaign coordinator with Idaho Rivers United.