Bear River dam proposal officially denied

Denial of the Bear river dam proposal is an indication of how the conversation has changed. The era of big dam building is long over; the era of dam removal is here.
— Kevin Lewis, IRU Executive Director

A never-say-die dam proposal for the Bear River of southeast Idaho is finally dead.

Citing a host of environmental concerns raised by IRU and our allies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission today formally rejected the application to build a new hydropower dam at the Bear River narrows, a scenic canyon east of Preston and an area popular with anglers and paddlers.

The Commission’s order adopts a staff recommendation made Oct. 1 and denies the original application by Twin Lakes Canal Company for a 10 megawatt dam and hydro facility.

“Today’s action by ends a nearly 14-year fight to protect a unique and beautiful river canyon,” said IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis. “For generations local citizens have hunted, hiked, camped, fished and floated along this section of the Bear River. Now, future generations will be afforded the same opportunities.”

The proposed reservoir would have inundated the Oneida Narrows Research Natural Area, a designation made by the Bureau of Land Management because of the canyon’s unique wildlife and plant ecosystems. The order finds that the dam and reservoir would be inconsistent with the reasons the natural area was established.

Today’s news also follows a 2012 decision by the Idaho Department of Water Resources to deny a water right that would be needed to construct the new dam. Despite losing its request for a water right, the Twin Lakes Canal Co. applied in November 2013 to FERC for a necessary federal license to build the project anyway.

FERC denied the new dam for the following reasons, all of which were raised by IRU and its allies during the decade-plus process of fighting the dam:

•    The dam would inundate a 4.5-mile reach of the Bear River that is suitable for Wild and Scenic river protections, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
•    It would have destroyed critical habitat for the imperiled Bonneville cutthroat trout.
•    Up to 48 additional sensitive species would be significantly and negatively impacted.
•    Conservation land designated by PacifiCorp in a critical 2002 settlement about Bear River operations would be lost.
•    Fifty-five acres of land inventoried by the Bureau of Land Management as Research Natural Area or Areas of Critical Environmental Concern would be lost.
•    The overall aesthetics of the Oneida Narrows area would be negatively impacted by a hyrdo project.

This week’s win for the Bear River is the result of work by numerous people and organizations including IRU, American Whitewater, Rocky Mountain Power, Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Franklin County Fish and Game Association and many concerned local residents.

“We took this new dam proposal seriously and are relieved and proud to have successfully defended another of Idaho’s special places,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, we’re not surprised. This is part of a growing trend. Big dams aren’t being built in this day and age. They’re being torn down.”

Just last month, the Army Corps of Engineers declared that raising Arrowrock Dam on the Boise River system by 70 feet wouldn’t pencil and sent the state of Idaho back to the drawing board. In Washington state in the past five years, three big dams were removed while wild salmon and steelhead repopulated their ancestral streams almost immediately. 

On the Klamath River in northern California, four more big dams are slated for removal by 2020 under an agreement reached early this year. And on the lower Snake River, four more deadbeat dams are awaiting decisive action that would restore the largest wild salmon runs in the world while saving taxpayers billions.

“Denial of the Bear river dam proposal is an indication of how the conversation has changed,” Lewis said. “The era of big dam building is long over; the era of dam removal is here."