The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is holding two public sessions on Thursday, Feb. 8, at Spokane's downtown Doubletree Hotel, allowing people to comment on the relicensing of five power-producing dams run by Avista Utilities.
"The five developments average 100 megawatts per year, and our goal is to continue to generate that amount," says Bruce Howard, Spokane River license manager for Avista. "It's clean, renewable -- and we don't have to pay utilities in other parts of the country to wheel it across their transmission lines."
But even cheap, renewable hydropower from your own backyard comes with a price, and relicensing is the way to set it by balancing power generation against other expenses the operator must pay for. Dam relicensing comes along every 30 to 50 years, and the rarity can make it contentious. Negotiations on this round started seven years ago.
"You get one chance in a generation" to speak up for what's important to you, is how Rick Eichstaedt, attorney for the Center for Justice, puts it.
This is really time travel, as much as anything else.
"This is the process where we try to reconcile the dam's presence with all the changes in laws and regulations ... and accommodating all the changes in society's goals and interests and priorities ... since the last relicensing," Howard says.
Still, attending one of these events sounds as exciting as eating Top Ramen for a month -- and about as healthy for you. But make no mistake, there are dramatic undercurrents.
For the first time, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe is a fully engaged player in the relicensing. Robert Matt, administrative director for the tribe, brings a long historical view to the proceedings. The Post Falls Dam is built on tribal land, he says, and for a century Washington Water Power, Avista's predecessor, played the tribal sovereignty card to keep the dam from the oversight of federal energy regulators. At the same time, WWP played the other side of the sovereignty card by citing state ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene as a way to rebuff the tribe's attempts to gain a stake in previous relicensing talks.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in the late 1980s awarded ownership of the lower third of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the tribe, and now it's time for Avista to come square on a number of issues, Matt says, ranging from the health of westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout fisheries, to erosion at the southern end of the lake, to cultural looting when erosion reveals ancient native artifacts.
"Our history is in those banks," Matt says. "This is where our people made their homes for thousands of years, and now our history is washing away and going through the turbines or being picked up by people looting. Our history shouldn't end up in somebody's basement."
Perhaps it's no surprise that the tribe and Avista are the last two parties clinched in a standoff as the license process otherwise heads towards completion.
There's another first in this round of relicensing: Avista is treating Spokane more as a partner than as a company town and is proposing a way around "turning off the river" every summer -- previously not open to debate -- where the waters run through the heart of the city in Riverfront Park.
Here's the fight in a nutshell: FERC projects that Avista will make $18.36 million a year off the five dams: Post Falls, Upper Falls, Monroe Street, Nine Mile and Long Lake. (Upriver Dam, which is between Post Falls and Upper Falls, is owned by the city of Spokane and is not part of this process.)
FERC contends the utility generates most of this $18 million downstream from Post Falls Dam and has paid scant attention to its obligations in Lake Coeur d'Alene, which stores the water that generates all that power.
"It's been suggested that we make a profit on energy downstream. The fact of the matter is, most of that goes to the customer," says Hugh Imhof, spokesman for Avista. "We profit, but we are a regulated utility. Investors had to put money up to build the dams in the first place, so they've got to get something off that."
"These dams have had some upgrades in the late '80s, early '90s, but otherwise this has always been gravy," contends Matt of the Coeur d'Alenes. "Post Falls Dam never had to pay any mitigation costs -- that's never been a requirement of its license before."
The tensions boiled over in 2005 when Avista surprised a wide-ranging group of stakeholders -- everybody from tribes and federal agencies to farmers and a radio-control model boat-racing club -- by suddenly dropping five years of negotiations and applying for two licenses: one for Post Falls and one for the
other four dams.
Avista said the twin licenses were just a practical way to separate different regulatory agencies (Washington from Idaho) and different watershed issues -- one a lake and one a river.
Critics contended it was a way to keep most of the revenue in Washington and only leave one dam to fund Lake Coeur d'Alene mitigation.
Neither is exactly true. Avista can't segregate the revenues. It's more likely the move is a strategy that gives Avista some leverage over the tribe -- sending a message that it could battle the tribe over lake mitigation for years while still running its other dams on a new license.
But even this aspect is still in play. FERC has accepted the "bifurcated" license application, but the agency tends to discourage split licenses, one observer says. Approval is not certain.
And even as FERC has its public comment hearing in Spokane next week, Avista and the tribe -- among other stakeholders -- have been hashing out mandatory federal license conditions in a separate process run through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of the Interior. A federal administrative law judge heard four days of expert witness testimony in Spokane early in December.
The federal judge found roughly half-and-half between Avista and the tribe -- ruling for the utility that the lake level behind the dam is not the main factor in the decline of native salmonid fish, has likely no effect on toxic heavy metals on the lake bottom, and is not the main factor behind higher water temperature and lower dissolved oxygen in the southern end of the lake. For the tribe, the judge found the dam is responsible for a net loss in wetlands, is responsible for half the erosion on lower tributaries such as the St. Joe and a third of all erosion along the lake, that the erosion has led to looting of artifacts, and that the dam increases aquatic weeds such as Eurasian water milfoil.
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"We haven't sat down across the same table [with Avista] in over a year," Matt says. "It's been that much of a breakdown." He pauses and adds, "There are a lot of good people involved in the relicensing process. I view our job and Avista's to find a solution. We need to get back to that so what doesn't happen is that a judge back in D.C. does it for us."
Howard, Avista's point man on relicensing, says nearly the same: "I think we share a lot of mutual goals with the tribe. Our hope is we can resolve these kinds of concerns."
This matter will be debated in the murky world of Department of the Interior and BIA and FERC administrative hearing boards, commissions and courts. But the FERC process that's coming to Spokane is slightly less opaque. "We receive any input and concerns the public may have," says Celeste Miller, spokeswoman for FERC.
The morning session at the Doubletree may be tilted more toward comments from agencies while the evening one is more geared toward citizens -- but the public is welcome at either, Miller says.
Comment closes on March 6, by which time everything must be received by FERC at this address: Magalie Salas, Secretary / Federal Energy Regulatory Commission / 888 First Street NE / Washington DC 20426.
On a lighter note, how much does it cost to make a dammed river at least have the surface appearance of a real one?
The answer is $65,400, according to estimates on what it would take in lost power generation to have an "aesthetic flow" hissing through the rocky basalt river channels in downtown Spokane.
With a nod to the changing dynamics of Spokane, where million-dollar condos are going up along the downtown riverbanks, Avista is proposing to release 200 cubic feet per second from 10 am till twilight from Memorial Day to Labor Day to create such a flow.
City officials are excited about the proposal from an economic development standpoint, a city spokeswoman says, adding, "Mayor Hession is interested in pursuing aesthetic flows through downtown for visitors or residents who want to see water in the river."
Now if that doesn't get you off your duff and into an arcane federal process, I don't know what will.
To learn more, visit www.avistautilities.com and click on the Spokane River Relicensing link; or, for the Sierra Club and Center for Justice side of the story, visit www.waterplanet.ws/avista. FERC will accept public comments on its draft environmental impact statement for Avista dam operations in two sessions on Thursday, Feb. 8, from 9 am-noon and again from 6-9 pm at the Doubletree Hotel City Center, next to the Convention Center.