River advocacy groups filed a petition in federal court today against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) challenging its recent decision to extend construction deadlines on the Enloe Hydroelectric Project on the Similkameen River in north-central Washington. Through the petition the groups seek to ensure FERC complies with clear requirements of the Federal Power Act and allows for meaningful public participation when making its decisions.
Despite strong local opposition, the Okanogan Public Utility District (OPUD) is currently seeking to re-energize Enloe Dam, which has sat dormant in the Similkameen River since 1958. Multiple economic analyses show that power generated by the project will cost far more than electricity from other sources, burdening ratepayers that live in one of the most economically disadvantaged counties in Washington. The PUD’s project would also divert the Similkameen River and dewater the culturally, ecologically and recreationally significant Similkameen (a.k.a “Coyote”) Falls downstream.
“As energy from wind and solar increase in the Pacific Northwest, and with an already abundant hydropower supply in the region, the power from Enloe isn’t necessary,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director with American Whitewater. Noting that the PUD recently entered into an agreement to purchase power from Wells Dam for as long as it needs the power, O’Keefe added, “the Similkameen River is a valuable resource to the region for recreation, scenic values, and fish and wildlife. We believe there’s more value in restoring the river to enhance these values.”
“OPUD faces a great deal of uncertainty about whether the project will be economically sound,” said John Osborn, physician and coordinator of Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future Project. “The PUD is required to do an aesthetic flow study but still plans to wait until after the project is built, meaning it will not know how much water it will be able to divert to generate power until it has sunk tens of millions of dollars into designing and building the project. It’s more compelling to restore the river. Coyote Falls is an increasingly important regional attraction because of an expanding local and regional trail system, and salmon can be seen swimming above waterfalls to the base of the dam.”
The petition challenges FERC’s 2018 decision to grant the PUD additional time to begin construction on the Enloe project. The Federal Power Act allows FERC to extend construction deadlines just once, which it did for OPUD in 2015. In anticipation of missing its July 9, 2017 deadline, OPUD filed a request that FERC further delay the deadline by granting a “stay.” FERC granted the request, and denied conservation groups’ attempts to have a formal say in the matter. The groups contend that FERC violated the law when it granted the PUD additional time to begin construction.
“OPUD’s FERC license allows it to operate Enloe until 2063,” said Jere Gillespie of Columbiana. “To avoid red ink, OPUD will have no choice but to pass the costs along to the ratepayers into the next generation. What makes sense for the Similkameen and for ratepayers is to free the river of this cement plug and not throw good money after bad. A free flowing Similkameen will enhance economic growth for the local community.”
The groups note that they have been and remain willing to work with the PUD to develop a path forward for restoring the river that addresses ecological and cultural issues and the economic concern for ratepayers.
The petition was filed today in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which provides appellate review of the decisions by FERC. The petitioners are American Whitewater, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Columbiana, and Sierra Club. Andrew Hawley and Pete Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center represent the Similkameen River advocates.