Friday, November 03, 2006

Condit Dam: What's Next?

Klickitat PUD explores ownership of the dam but financial risks are significant.

On September 22, 1999 PacifiCorp signed an agreement to remove Condit Dam on the White Salmon River. The agreement represents the culmination of two years of negotiations between resource managers and over a dozen separate stakeholder groups who enjoy the White Salmon River. The agreement calls for removal of the 125-foot-tall concrete dam that since 1913 has diverted water from the natural channel obstructing downstream navigation and blocking upstream fish passage. While the removal process continues to move forward and is scheduled for fall 2008, Klickitat County PUD recently raised the possibility that they would acquire the dam and take over operation of the hydropower project.

In an October 26th editorial appearing in the White Salmon Enterprise, Klickitat Public Utility District Board President Dan Gunkel stated that "a new energy policy law was enacted in 2005 that changed the rules for hydro relicensing. This new law may allow for more cost effective fish mitigation measures at Condit Dam."

In considering this statement it is important to understand the background for the required mitigation measures if a utility such as Klickitat PUD were interested in purchasing and operating Condit Dam. In 1996 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission completed an analysis of new requirements for the Condit project that would be necessary to bring it up to modern safety and environmental standards. Any new owner would be required by law to meet these new mitigation requirements. Of particular importance, FERC and other federal agencies would require fish ladders and reduced diversion of flows for hydropower production. Together these measures render the Condit Project uneconomic. To place the Condit Project in perspective it produces less than 10 MW of power each year. This is comparable to a few wind turbines. The Stateline Wind Energy Project for example produces 300 MW and on the hydropower side Grand Coulee can produce up to 6480 MW. Utilities have found that small projects such as Condit, originally constructed to provide power for the Crown Willamette Paper Company in Camas, are not an efficient source of power when operating costs exceed revenue potential. Other small projects in the region scheduled for removal are located on the Elwha, Sandy, and Hood Rivers.

Gunkel proposes to challenge the mitigation requirements that were originally analyzed in 1996 with the hope that cheaper options could be found. Specifically the Klikcitat PUD would like to replace the requirement for fish ladders with a trap-and-haul program where fish would be trucked around the dam. While it is questionable as to whether the project would be an economic source of power even with implementation of this alternative mitigation measure it is even more questionable as to whether any substitution for less protective measures would be successful.

Condit Dam on the White Salmon River.

What the Law Says

The law Gunkel is referring to that would allow this challenge is the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was signed into law on August 8th, 2005 and does include some new provisions for hydropower relicensing. What Gunkel fails to mention is that there are two parts to this law: first is the option to propose cheaper mitigation options which he does note but the law also states that these alternatives must be no less protective of the fishery resource.

Specifically Section 241 of this law adds section 33 to the Federal Power Act (FPA), 16 U.S.C. 797(e), 811, to provide that the license applicant or any other party to the license proceeding may propose an alternative condition or prescription to mandatory agency conditions (in this case the mandatory requirement for a fish ladder). The Secretary of the agency involved must accept the proposed alternative if the Secretary determines, based on substantial evidence provided by a party to the license proceeding or otherwise available to the Secretary: (a) that the alternative condition provides for the adequate protection and utilization of the reservation, or that the alternative prescription will be no less protective than the fishway initially proposed by the Secretary, and (b) that the alternative will either cost significantly less to implement or result in improved operation of the project works for electricity production.

In practice this means that Klickitat PUD could, assuming they acquire the Condit project, propose an alternative to the fish ladder on Condit Dam. However they would need to demonstrate that their alternative prescription will be no less protective than the fishway initially proposed. This would be a difficult bar to reach at the Condit Project given the extensive record and science supporting the need for fish ladders to restore the long-term health of populations in decline. The law clearly states that alternatives such as trucking the fish around the dam would not be acceptable in cases such as Condit where they would be less protective of the resource. While trap and haul programs have been used at some projects this does not mean that such a program would work at Condit. Every project receives an independent evaluation by fishery scientists. One of the key issues at this particular project is not only adult passage upstream but juvenile passage downstream. Both of these issues would need to be addressed.

Entrance to the Narrows of the White Salmon below Condit Dam.

What About Others Who Have Tried This Approach?

As reported in September by AP writer Jeff Barnard in his story "PacifiCorp loses challenge of fish ladders over dams", dam owners have not had success in using the authority the Energy Policy Act provides to challenge requirements for fish ladders. The Klamath was the first case under the new provisions of the Energy Policy Act where a utility challenged mandates from federal fisheries agencies that it provide fish ladders, screen turbines, and devote a smaller proportion of the river to power production as mandatory conditions for a new license. Administrative Law Judge Parlen L. McKenna agreed with fishery scientists that alternatives to fish ladders did not provide the level of protection required (i.e. that the standard of "no less protective" could not be achieved by an alternative trap and haul program).

Klickitat County has already spent over half a million dollars in legal fees on Condit Dam. Their legal counsel may have suggested that they could challenge the requirement for fish ladders, but one should consider where the advice is coming from: a law firm that would stand to make a healthy profit by extracting additional dollars from local taxpayers whether or not the challenge is successful.

Narrows of the White Salmon below Condit Dam.

What Would the Outcome Be?

To implement the provisions of the Energy Policy Act and initiate a challenge Klickitat PUD would first need to acquire the Condit Project. Since PacifiCorp is not interested in selling, they have proposed to do so by a hostile condemnation proceeding. While it is unclear what the cost of this acquisition would be, what is clear is that Klickitat PUD would then be responsible for meeting necessary mitigation requirements or if they can't, removing the project. If Klickitat PUD acquired the project they could challenge the mandatory fish ladder requirements. The key here is they can challenge them before an Administrative Law Judge, but that does not mean they would be successful and the experience at Klamath would suggest that they would not be. At that point Klickitat PUD would be faced with the prospect of operating a project that costs significantly more to operate than alternative generation sources. In addition Klickitat PUD would be faced with the liability of owning an aging dam nearly a century old.

PacifiCorp, a company with a long history of experience operating and licensing hydropower projects, made the decision to decommission the Condit Project because it is not an economic source of power. Klickitat PUD even hired CH2M Hill, one of the world's leading engineering firms, to conduct an independent review that reached the same conclusion. Klickitat PUD would be wise to not take on the liability this project represents.

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