Supporters of Oneida Narrows dam await ruling

Published online: Jan 08, 2015

PRESTON, Idaho—Franklin County farmers view a dam they’ve proposed on the Bear River as a solution to persistent water shortages that often force them to leave acres fallow and cut off irrigation prematurely.

A public comment period on Twin Lakes Canal Co.’s planned project on the river’s Oneida Narrows reach ended Dec. 16, after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission launched an environmental review of the final license application.

The 230 Twin Lakes shareholders, representing 16,000 irrigated acres, hope FERC will grant the project a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement by a June 15 deadline. The canal company has worked for about a decade seeking to advance its proposed 109-foot dam, which would create a 4.5-mile reservoir impounding water upstream to the base of the exiting Oneida Dam. Power generated from the new dam would raise revenue to repay construction costs and to replace the company’s open-ditch canal system with pipe, thereby saving additional water lost to seepage.

But the project has faced strong opposition from environmental groups, sportsmen and the likes of the federal Bureau of Land Management, PacifiCorp and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

Some opponents, including PacifiCorp, have filed motions asking FERC to dismiss the application. PacifiCorp argued in its public comments the dam would create “irreconcilable conflicts” with its existing Bear River hydropower projects. PacifiCorp contends the dam would “destroy or alter” measures it’s undertaken to mitigate for impacts on native Bonneville cutthroat trout.

BLM officials insist they lack authority to approve rights-of-way to allow the project to disrupt a BLM-administered research natural area.

The Tribes seek to intervene based on “adverse impacts to cultural resources, fish and wildlife resources and off-reservation treaty rights.”

“There are a number of absolute roadblocks to building this dam,” said Kevin Lewis, conservation director with Idaho Rivers United, which also filed a motion to dismiss the application. “Instead of them realizing that, they keep forging forward and spending more money.”

The Idaho Department of Water Resources has already denied water rights for the project based on public concerns, though Twin Lakes Canal Co. President Clair Bosen believes the agency would place considerable weight on the approval of a FERC permit.

Bosen said his company has also invested millions in a suite of studies to address public concerns — and gone back and updated its application to address a host of additional FERC questions.

The canal company currently operates Twin Lakes, Conde and Winder reservoirs.

“Six out of 10 years, we’re way short of water,” Bosen said. “A lot of times, we don’t even plant crops.”

Wes Beutler, who farms in Dayton, Clifton and Weston, left 265 acres fallow during the 2013 season due to a tight water supply. Because he’s contractually obligated to supply seed potatoes and dry bean seed, he elected to stop irrigating alfalfa after his first cutting.

“That (dam) is the only way we can come up with to solve our problem,” Beutler said. “There’s a moratorium on drilling any irrigation wells in the Bear River drainage now.”

Beutler said many farmers in his area have already left the business due to water challenges.