BPA, Corps Table Lake Level Request
by Keith Kinnaird
Bonner County Daily Bee, January 16, 2010
SANDPOINT — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration have tabled a proposal to fluctuate the level of Lake Pend Oreille this winter.
"This does not preclude future operations to produce power benefits," Stuart Cook, chief of the corps' Operations Division in Seattle, said in a statement released on Friday. "But we do recognize public concern about the proposed operation and we want to fully consider those concerns before making a decision."
Bonneville asked the corps, which operates the Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River, to raise and lower the lake's level within a 5-foot range this winter to meet the ebb and flow of power demands in the Columbia Basin.
But the proposal encountered a powerful current of opposition in Idaho due to concerns over shoreline erosion, sedimentation and impacts to warm and cold water fish populations. There was also worry that shifting ice and water flows would leave water intakes and shoreline infrastructure vulnerable to costly damage.
The Pend Oreille Basin Commission voiced strong opposition to the BPA proposal, contending there was too little analysis of its impacts and too tight a time frame to conduct any meaningful studies.
"It was a great victory for the commission and for all residents of Bonner County," said commission Chairman Ford Elsaesser. "It's a very wise decision and hopefully people will think long and hard before trying to mess around with the lake in an experiment."
Steve Oliver, BPA's vice president of generation asset management, said his agency appreciates the upstream concerns and pledged to examine them in greater detail, although there was no word Friday on what form the analysis will take.
"We're hopeful the dam can be operated in a way that considers the local importance of the lake and, at the same time, provides valuable power locally and regionally," Oliver said in a statement.
Elsaesser said the commission was grateful for the support of four Panhandle lawmakers and Idaho's federal delegation, who also urged a cautious approach to manipulating the lake level for power needs.
U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said BPA and the corps' decision to defer the proposal will lead to a better understanding of its impacts.
"I appreciate the fact that the Army Corps and BPA stepped back from a rushed decision on this important matter and will discuss the proposal further with residents. That input will allow for a better decision when the time comes," Risch said in a statement.
State Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, agrees.
Eskridge, a retired BPA official, said the agency's proposal has validity, but it was dogged by too many unknowns. Strategically storing and releasing water in the system can benefit Idaho utility customers, whether they're serviced by Avista or Northern Lights, he said.
"There's value in operating that river with some flexibility because when you've got a higher power demand and you have to go off the system to buy it, that's expensive and that results in higher rates for us," Eskridge said.
Eskridge is hoping water in the Pend Oreille can be managed in a manner that keeps rates low and doesn't cause any environmental problems or property damage.
But he's relieved the corps and BPA have decided to hold off.
"It all worked out for the good of everyone, including Bonneville and the corps because if they do this right, it can result in a positive thing," he said.
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