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Environmentalists to Barber Dam Hydroelectric Operators: Pay Restitution For River Drop

More than 75 people attended the evening meeting and when it came time to testify, several put forth one request: Pay for the damage to the watershed.


After the Barber Dam ceased water flow to the Boise River in the late night and early morning hours of Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, citizens and environmental groups were astonished to discover the river had become a trickle. It took Enel Green Power—the company operating a hydroelectric facility at the dam—nearly eight hours to discover and correct the problem. Environmentalists say the shutdown possibly killed adolescent fish and affected the watershed.

Almost four months later, the Ada County commissioners hosted a public meeting May 27 where Enel's management team was asked to explain how the incident happened and how it will make sure it won't happen again. The public also got the opportunity to tell Enel and the commissioners their concerns with the dewatering of the Boise River.

More than 75 people attended the evening meeting and when it came time to testify, several put forth one request: Pay for the damage to the watershed.

The Idaho Conservation League suggested a few ideas, including restoring riparian areas around Barber Pool and the Boise River, funding for the U.S. Geological Survey to complete water quality studies and biological sampling, and off-channel fish habitat enhancement projects. The price tag for the projects ranges from $35,000 to $350,000.

"[Enel] is anxious to get started," Ada County Commissioner Dave Case told Boise Weekly, "but they need to know what to do."

Case said the commissioners may start the process by creating an advisory group to pick a project for the corporation to fund, rather than simply levying a fine.

"To me, when accidents happen, should there be fines, or positive efforts to correct things?" said Case. "I think it would be better to do something positive for the area rather than take the money for a fine that would go to some government entity."

Joe Kozfkay, the regional fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, doesn't have as much confidence in Enel Green Power to take on a costly river restoration project.

"I doubt that much is going to happen to tell you the truth," Kozfkay said. "There isn't hard data that shows an obvious impact to fish populations. We won't be able to assess the impact until the fall of 2016; that's a long way after the fact."

Kozfkay and his colleagues first got calls about the Boise River's dramatic drop on the morning of Feb. 4. It took them until 1 p.m. to get their rafts to the river and start surveying the effects of the accident.

By then, the Barber Dam had been turned back on and flows increased from the usual 240 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 400 CFS, possibly washing away evidence of the impact.

Kozfkay said he didn't see any dead fish that afternoon along the shoreline of the river. He feels confident that large adult fish could have kept up with the change in water level and stayed in the deepest parts of the channels; though, small and adolescent fish living in shallow areas would have been most affected.

He said the loss of those fish won't be apparent for three to five years, when they would have been large enough to be caught by anglers. He doesn't expect it to be catastrophic, rather a minor setback for the wild trout fishery in the Boise River.

"Memories are kind of short," Kozfkay said. "People will have moved on by then."

Larry James, Enel Green Power's regional manager for hydroelectric operations, said the company probably won't take any mitigation efforts until after the fall of 2016, when Fish and Game has completed its fish survey and has a better idea of how many fish were killed.

He told attendees at the public meeting that much has been done at Barber Dam to keep this from ever happening again, including quadrupling alarm and notification systems that would alert operators if the dam shut off and the water flow stopped.

"I was hopeful that people would have paid more attention to what we've done so far," James said, referring to the testimonies demanding Enel Green Power make significant financial contributions to river restoration projects.

James said that after Fish and Game can give Enel a clearer picture of the effects from the dam shut-off, the company is willing to do something. What that something is, however, may not be apparent for a few more years.