PRESTON, Idaho—For years, a war over water has been raging as efforts to dam one of Idaho’s most beloved recreational areas continue.
For almost eight years, it has been the mission of Idaho’s Twin Lakes Canal Co. (TLCC) to build a dam on the Oneida Narrows, a pristine whitewater stretch of the Bear River about 15 miles northeast of Preston. After $2.5 million and multiple research efforts, the plan is in its final stages; the completed application for the dam will be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulating Commission (FERC) in June, said company president Clair Bosen.
• Related story: “River interests collide: Oneida dam issue coming to a head,” The Logan Herald Journal
“Twin Lakes Canal Company waters over a third of the irrigated land in Franklin County,” which includes Preston, Bosen said. “The dam would provide us with more water as well as give us income from the hydro-electric portion of it to put all of our system in pipe, and the pipe would allow us to save a lot of water because we wouldn’t be losing it through evaporation and seeping.”
But the project rubs environmentalists and whitewater enthusiasts the wrong way, and has drawn opposition from a wide range of sources, including Boise-based Idaho Rivers United, Western energy giant PacifiCorp, Bear Lake Watch, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Great Salt Lakekeeper, Trout Unlimited, and the citizen-based Oneida Narrows Organization (ONO), headquartered in Smithfield, Utah, 17 miles south of Preston.
Kevin Lewis, conservation program director at Idaho Rivers United, agrees about the danger, but he says the fight is far from over. “Claire Bosen may get an A for optimism but the reality is [that] this is far from a done deal,” he said.
Lewis points out that the FERC sent back a draft application for the project, calling it deficient and asking some 20 pages of questions for TLCC to address in its final license application. “This project has many hurdles yet to clear and there are substantial roadblocks that Mr. Bosen tries to minimize,” Lewis said.
Star Coulbrooke, who heads ONO, also says opposition to the plan continues. “We’re very upset to think that we’re losing that river,” she said
They’re so upset, in fact, that the group circulated petitions last summer in opposition of the dam project, collecting more than 1,700 signatures in one month. “Mainly we just try to raise awareness and let people know that it’s in danger,” Coulbrooke said.
What’s in danger, says Idaho Rivers United’s Lewis, is an unspoiled public resource. “If constructed, this proposed project would destroy one of the last publicly accessible free-flowing sections of the Bear River,” Lewis said. “This section of river is an irreplaceable resource for the generations of Idahoans who have spent time fishing, hunting, kayaking and rafting, swimming, camping or just sitting on a rock and enjoying this canyon.”
One main concern for ONO members is the destruction of wildlife.
“This dam that they want to put [in] would not only make it so that no one could use it, but the wildlife and birds would be in danger,” Coulbrooke said.
The dam would damage the deer population as it freezes in the winter, and could result in deer drowning by falling through the ice, Coulbrooke said. Other species that would be in danger include wild turkey, bald eagles, ducks, and cutthroat trout, among others, she said.
But Twin Lakes argues that all these species have been considered in the construction of the dam.
“Our company has spent over $2.5 million on studies that were required by Fish and Game and Trout Unlimited and so on, to study the fish and the birds and the bats and the bees and the rabbits and the snails and the deer and elk, moose and eagles, and anything you can think of,” Bosen said. “It’s all been turned into the Federal Energy Regulating Commission and most of it has been approved.”
Another main concern of protestors is the impact on recreational activities that the Narrows currently offers for rafting, tubing, camping, fishing and kayaking.
“It’s just an amazing place with experiences that you’re not going to have at a reservoir,” said kayaking enthusiast Jean Lown.
As someone who has kayaked the river 10 months of the year, Lown says she encourages her students at Utah State to take advantage of and stand up for such a wonderful outdoor experience. Lown is a professor of family, consumer and human development.
“The population of Utah is exploding,” Lown said. “Every recreational opportunity that we have now is going to get more and more crowded and if we take them away … we’re losing such a valuable and unique opportunity.”
Twin Lakes’ rebuttal to this concern is that recreation will still be widely available.
With the new dam and reservoir in place, camping and boating will be accessible, as well as tubing just below it, Bosen said.
“It isn’t one of those things where [people] are going to lose [recreation], because we have to replace anything that we take out,” Bosen said. “And we’ll do it very nicely.”
But Lewis and others dispute that claim. “To state that these experiences would be provided by the construction of this dam show a fundamental lack of understanding of what this special place provides,” Lewis said.
“In addition,” he said, “the Oneida Narrows is critical habitat for fluvial Bonneville Cutthroat Trout and a multi-million dollar habitat protection and improvement project funded by PacifiCorp Energy. The flooding of this canyon and destruction of fish habitat could easily result in the listing of BCT under the Endangered Species Act.”
Bosen and Twin Lakes also argue that the dam will produce clean and renewable energy.
“The real neat thing about hydropower is that it’s there every minute,” Bosen said. “Hydropower is the cheapest power, the cleanest power there is, and it’s totally renewable.”
But such benefits come with a cost. At $70 million for a project that would take at least five years to complete, Twin Lakes Canal Company would spend the next 30 years paying for the dam, Bosen said.
The environmental issues aside, that’s a price that Charlie Vincent, principle engineer at Confluence Engineers, LLC, doesn’t think is worth it.
“There’s not enough revenue source that it would take to build the dam,” he said. “That’s just sort of a drop in the bucket for what it’s going to cost to get a payout.”
Idaho Rivers United commissioned an economic review of TLCC’s draft license application, Lewis said. “The results of the review show a high likelihood that this project will lose money on every kilowatt of electricity generated and threaten the 200-plus shareholders of the canal company with great economic uncertainty.”
One thing that both sides of the Oneida Narrows dam issue agree on, however, is the importance of public and USU student awareness.
“Even if they’re not here for a long time, this is their home,” said Bryan Dixon, former director of then Cache Valley environmental activist group ECOnet. “You have a responsibility to protect your home for those who come after you.”
The TLCC’s Bosen agrees that public awareness is important, but he think it will yield a different result.
“If people take the time to study and know what we’re trying to do and understand the reason behind it, they’d understand why we’re doing it,” Bosen said.