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Barber Dam and the Mysterious Boise River Drop: Hot Topics at Ada County Public Hearing

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The public meeting with the Ada County Commissioners attracted around 75 people to talk about the Barber Dam's malfunction earlier this year that left the Boise River as a "trickle." - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • The public meeting with the Ada County Commissioners attracted around 75 people to talk about the Barber Dam's malfunction earlier this year that left the Boise River as a "trickle."

The May 27 evening session hosted by Ada County Commissioners was not a typical public hearing. There was no decision made nor options to be weighed. Instead, commissioners brought together a variety of stakeholders to talk about the power outage at the Barber Dam back in early February that left the Boise River as a trickle for eight hours. 

The incident happened on the evening of Feb. 3 around 11 p.m., when a bump in the power grid knocked the dam offline—a common occurrence, according to Enel Green Power operations manager Larry James. That stopped the flow of water over the dam and into the lower Boise River and because no functioning alarm system seemed to be in place, the error wasn't noticed until the morning, when operators came to work. 

"We don't believe this can happen again," James said before the crowd of 75 and the commissioners.

He said that Enel Green Power—the company that operates the dam, which is owned by Ada County—has quadrupled the number of alarms in place if something like this was to happen again. He said unique circumstances lead to the shut-off of water. Because of nearby construction, the level of the pond above the dam was drawn down to lower levels. 

"Could it have been prevented? No," James said. "The duration could have been less, though."

The Barber Dam was built in the early 1900s. On Feb. 3, the dam was knocked offline, ceasing to push water into the lower Boise River. - U.S. BUREAU OF RECLAMATION
  • U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
  • The Barber Dam was built in the early 1900s. On Feb. 3, the dam was knocked offline, ceasing to push water into the lower Boise River.
During his presentation, James was adamant that the dewatering of the Boise River didn't have a profound impact on the watershed. He said the Idaho Department of Fish and Game only found two dead fish in the days following the incident. 

"The department found minimal impacts," he said. 

But when Fish and Game staff biologists took to the podium after James, they painted a different picture. Fish biologist Art Butts said he got a call on the morning of Feb. 4, alerting him that the Boise River was a "trickle." It took him until 1 p.m. to get rafting equipment together and get out on the river to examine the impacts of the drastic drop in water flow. Typically, the Boise River flows in the winter months at 240 cubic feet per second (CFS). After dropping to almost zero, Barber Dam operators increased the flow to 500 CFS.

"That negated our ability to see fish mortality," Butt explained, "because carcasses would have been washed away." 

Butt said he scanned the shoreline for dead fish, but didn't see any. He believed that only a few adult fish would have been killed by the incident, and that most could have kept up with the stream flow and headed to the deepest part of the channels. He said the smaller fish, especially young fish that live in the shallow gravel areas, probably didn't survive. He said insects that make the water their home also probably suffered from the incident. 

The next fish survey to be completed in the Boise River won't take place until 2016, and Butts said by then, it'll be hard to quantify what effect this incident had on the aquatic life. 

Idaho Fish and Game environmental biologist Rick Ward said the river used to run at 150 CFS in the early 1990s, but when the flows were increased to 240 CFS, the wild trout population increased 16-fold. He stressed the importance of consistent river flows and said he'd like to see some compensation, "an action to restore resources lost."

"We'll recommend things that can positively influence fish populations," he said.

After that, the meeting opened for public comment. Several representatives from environmental nonprofits including Idaho Rivers United, the Idaho Conservation League, the Freshwater Trust, the Idaho Wildlife Federation, Conservation Voters for Idaho, the Boise River Enhancement Network and Trout Unlimited called for Enel Green Power to make a significant financial contribution to a river restoration project—though no specifics on such a project were presented at the meeting.

The photo on the left was taken on the morning of Feb. 4, after the Barber Dam stopped the flow of water into the Boise River overnight. The photo on the right was taken three hours later, after water refilled the riverbed. - FRANKIE BARNHILL, BOISE STATE PUBLIC RADIO
  • Frankie Barnhill, Boise State Public Radio
  • The photo on the left was taken on the morning of Feb. 4, after the Barber Dam stopped the flow of water into the Boise River overnight. The photo on the right was taken three hours later, after water refilled the riverbed.

Some testifying were more sympathetic to Enel Green Power than others. Bill Carr, the production manager for United Water Idaho, said overseeing plants that filter water from the Boise River to be safe for drinking, said he understands the technical challenges operators at the Barber Dam are facing. 

"I know what they're dealing with, and it can be difficult," Carr said. He stressed the importance of working together to protect the important resource that is the Boise River.

Others were harsher, like a Boise resident who said that he was disappointed that Enel Green Power never actually apologized for what went wrong.

Dorene MacCoy, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey at the Idaho Water Science Center, said she helped conduct a study of the Boise River near the Barber Park in October 2014 through a partnership with the city of Boise. She said the city and other entities may be willing to fund a similar study for this October as well, to see if the effects from the dam shut-off could be quantified. 

Kate Thorpe, representing the Conservation Voters for Idaho, presented to the commissioners a petition signed by 300 people demanding that Enel Green Power make a significant financial contribution to river restoration. Another person in the crowd suggested that Enel should pay for a fish survey to better study the possible damage.

Andy Brunelle, the U.S. Forest Service Capitol City Coordinator, testified as a member of Trout Unlimited. 

"I think it was Carl Sagan who said, 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,'" Brunelle said. He said Trout Unlimited has experience with river restoration projects and would be a good candidate to do more, should Enel decide to pay up. 

The commissioners ended the meeting by thanking everyone for their feedback, but without any mention of what will happen next.