Sunday, October 18, 2015

How Black Canyon releases work: An interview with American Whitewater

The releases in the Black Canyon of the Bear were hard won after years of negotiation. We owe many thanks to a lot of different folks on all sides of the negotiating table. Today we are pleased to share with you a Q&A with Charlie Vincent, Regional Volunteer with American Whitewater. Charlie was instrumental in making these releases a possibility and is giving us some insight into how the releases were negotiated, what the process is currently, and what you can do to get involved.

What is your role at AWA and how did you get involved? 

My title with AW is Regional Volunteer and I got involved via the Bear relicensing many years ago.  I have primarily worked on the Bear relicensing, but I also have participated in the American Fork Decommissioning, the Cove Decommissioning, the proposed Twin Lakes Canal Company dam opposition on the Bear below Oneida, and now the Weber Relicensing.

I first got involved with the Bear in 1986 via the public meetings that were held in several locations, including PacifiCorp’s office on North Temple in Salt Lake.  I don’t remember how many boaters attended, but there were at least two of us and I seem to recall there were others.  Later in February of 1998 when I was between jobs, a friend suggested I go to the monthly relicensing meetings that were happening in Pocatello, ID.  Initially the attendees were mostly state and Federal agencies, but there were a couple NGOs (Greater Yellowstone Coalition, AW, TU, & IRU were the early ones, but more came later) and periodic “private citizens” attended as well. It is a public process and everyone is welcome, but there has been a lot of turnover over the years.  At first I was just a private citizen trying to figure out what was going on, but fairly early on Liz McCoy from IRU started mentoring me, I was already a member and I gradually began representing IRU for maybe two years. Liz eventually took a leave of absence to start her family and IRU reduced their involvement.  Around the same time John Gangemi from AW became more involved in the Bear, I was also already a member, he too started mentoring me and I eventually started representing AW.  A number of years later, John joined the private sector and I hada  couple AW interim mentors before I started working with Kevin Colburn for the last 10 years. On a personal note, I also met my current wife (Eve Davies) in the spring of 2002 when the relicensing negotiation process was all going bad and PacifiCorp changed out their relicensing team.

What was the process for first getting releases scheduled in the Black Canyon to begin with? 

I will try to be shorter on this reply but it has been a long process.  Per the Federal Power Act, pretty much everyone but the Federal Government (Bureau of Reclamation(BOR) and Army Corps projects) is required to get a FERC license for their hydropower dam and the typical license is 30 years (but not always). In my experience, the relicensing process seems to start 4-5 years before the current license expires.  The key amendment to the Federal Power Act occurred in 1963, which required the owner to consider other interests besides just power generation in the FERC license application process. This is the means by which things like recreational releases, fish passage, habitat preservation, wildlife, water quality standards, cultural preservation considerations, etc. got their standing and now need to be considered in the licensing process.

For the Bear river projects (originally 4 and now 3 facilities, Cove was decommissioned prior to the license being issued), the license was granted in December of 2003 and contains several pages related to recreational releases.  Of most interest to boaters is the following part of Article 419:

“(c) In year 7 and subsequently after the issuance of the license, or an alternative schedule as determined by the Project Implementation Plan required under Article 401, the license shall release whitewater boating flows between 700 and 1500 cfs for 96 hours between April 1 and July 15 each year, if available as inflow, unless monitoring results (required under Article 407) show significant adverse effect on ecological attributes in Black Canyon.  The required ramping rates determined in Article 412 shall also be implemented during this period.  For the purpose of this section, “significant adverse effect” is defined as a measured change that materially degrades ecological attributes including, without limitation, water quality, native fish, and macroinvertabrate habitat, and riparian habitat, to the extent that the ability to achieve the management objectives of the final BCT restoration Plan, the RCAS, and the CTMAPP is impaired.  In no event shall the license be obligated to provide more than 96 hours of scheduled whitewater boating flows in any given year at an average of 1,050 cfs.
Nothing in this article shall require the licensee to violate its obligations under, or permit any action inconsistent with, the water contracts and agreements, interstate compact, judicial decrees, state water rights, and flood control responsibilities described in section 5.10 and Appendix C of the August 28, 2002 , Settlement Agreement.”

The obvious next question is why don’t our current releases look like the above? The very short answer is there’re have been many years of adaptive management, which means years of studies, sometimes contentious ECC discussions around the interpretation of the results, and finally most importantly compromise.  As a result we now have 9 guaranteed annual releases at a minimum of 900cfs per year versus the original 16 only “if available as inflow".   Other necessary compromises include, the release schedule now ends June 3rd, because Bonneville Cutthroat trout spawning occurs sometime after that date and BCT restoration is a primary objective of the license.  The original July 15th date was part of the license because the water temperature in the river gets too warm after that date to support a healthy trout population in the Black Canyon.

How are future releases decided? 

As a result of the evolution of the license, we now get 9 releases per year between April 1 and June 3rd.  Every year in January or February, the PacifiCorp hydrologist looks at the snow pack forecast and proposes dates for the releases based on when they think they will have the water to best meet their obligation to provide releases. AW has input into the dates and then the schedule is approved by the ECC and submitted to FERC.  You may have noticed the schedule has generally been moving to earlier dates in the season, because that when we have seen the best participation.  The later May and early June dates have just never been well attended so we try to avoid them.

What is the possibility of getting additional releases? Or increasing flows per release? 

It is all spelled out in the license plus the subsequent evolution and refinement of the operating procedures by the ECC. Much more likely than additional releases, is reducing the number that we have, since several releases per year have very low or zero attendance.  If there is more than 900 cfs flowing into the reservoir at Soda, that is when you will see flows in excess of the 900 cfs minimum.

What’s the discussion been around fall releases? 

We have tried on numerous occasions and the discussion never goes very far.  The main reason is one thing I have not mentioned yet…water rights (second paragraph in the above FERC license quote above).  The relicensing discussion above is related to taking the water out of the power company turbines and putting it back in the river for recreation.  The other super important issue is we technically have no legal right to the water because recreation is not considered a “beneficial use” as defined by current water law.  Hence we need to piggy back on water being released from Bear Lake for irrigation and would otherwise go through the hydro power turbines.  This means we are functionally limited to recreational releases when the farmers are calling for irrigation flows or natural (typically spring) runoff.  Aside from the ecological issues that are associated with Fall releases (such as fish mortality from warm water), on a practical basis we will likely never get fall whitewater flows on the Bear, because the farmers with the water rights don’t call for much water in the fall.

How can people get involved if they’re concerned about these issues (particularly getting fall releases or additional releases)?  

As you have probably begun to understand, most of the decisions and procedures around the Black Canyon recreational releases have been established.  But that doesn’t mean the there is nothing that can be done.  Every year it is difficult for AW to defend why there should continue to be 9 releases when every year we have several releases with limited or zero attendance.  Yes the festival weekend typically has 50-100 people per day and that is fantastic, many thanks to Tyler Babcock, Bryson White and others.  But equally important is being focused on attending all of the existing releases to preserve them and position ourselves for potentially more in the next license (that process will begin in something like 12 years). As for Fall releases, I share the dream, but I just don’t ever see it working on the Bear based on current water law and circumstances.

One thing that can be done for both the Bear and other projects is involvement.  The relicensing of Weber project that dewaters the Scrambled Eggs Bend section has just begun and the equivalent public meeting to the Bear one I attended in 1996 occurred last week.  There was only one person, not a boater that attended the meeting at the Ben Lowman Hotel in Ogden on Tuesday October 6th.  For the Weber, this is the time to become involved in the public process, but continued involvement is how you make sure our recreational needs are met.  If I knew back in the 90’s that the meetings I was attending would go on for 20+ years with the need to continue to participate growing every year I sometimes wonder if I’d have made the same decision.  But I can assure you that we can make a difference, people just have to start by showing up and being willing to learn from the like minded people, both volunteers and professionals who are out there.


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