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Litigation News: Freeing the Similkameen River and Dungeness River Rule Challenge

by Dan Von Seggern

CELP Continues Fight to Free Similkameen River

The long-running battle to remove this environmentally damaging and economically unjustifiable Enloe Dam continues. A major tributary to the Okanogan River, the Similkameen flows through 122 miles of potential salmon habitat in British Columbia and Washington. A fish-blocking dam was constructed on the River in 1922 and has not generated power since 1958. The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD), which owns the dam, is attempting to restart power generation at the dam. The power the dam would produce is not needed and would be much more expensive than the PUD’s current sources of electricity.

On September 13, along with the Sierra Club and Columbiana, CELP filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the Okanogan County PUD as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over the dam’s effect on ESA-listed Upper Columbia steelhead and Chinook salmon. The Notice is the first step towards filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act. We contend that the dam unlawfully harms ESA-listed fish species, that the process of evaluating the dam’s impact on fish was inadequate, and that FERC unlawfully failed to consult with NMFS regarding the listed fish, as the Endangered Species Act requires.

In a separate action, CELP has asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review FERC’s giving the PUD additional time to begin construction. The Federal Power Act requires that construction be started within the period of a hydroelectric license, and allows only a single two-year extension. When the PUD failed to begin construction within the required time, FERC “stayed” revocation of the license, effectively giving the PUD additional time. CELP believes that FERC lacked authority to “extend” the license in this manner and that it should have allowed public participation in the license amendment process.

Dungeness River Rule Challenge

This case (Bassett et al. v. Ecology, Case No. 51221-1-II) is a challenge by a group of property rights activists and developers to the Department of Ecology’s Instream Flow Rule for the Dungeness River, WAC 173-518.  CELP supports the Rule, which provides for mitigated use of new permit-exempt wells while protecting instream resources.  After the plaintiffs filed suit against Ecology, CELP joined in the case as an intervener to argue in favor of the Rule. CELP and Ecology prevailed in Thurston County Superior Court, and plaintiffs appealed.   Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the case on October 18 and we are now awaiting the Court’s ruling.

Conservation groups ready to go to court over endangered species harmed by north-central Washington dam

Today, river advocacy groups notified federal agencies and a local public utility of their intent to sue over harm inflicted on Similkameen River endangered steelhead and threatened bull trout by Enloe Dam. New video evidence shows fish at the base of the dam unable to access stream areas above the dam that may be critical to their recovery. However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the Okanogan Public Utility District (OPUD) have failed to reinitiate consultation to address how this new information affects a permit to construct a power generating facility at the dam. Today’s notice starts a 60-day clock until a lawsuit can be filed.

“This new evidence showing fish, most likely Chinook salmon, jumping at the base of Enloe Dam provides new evidence that FERC’s analysis that re-energizing Enloe Dam would have ‘no effect’ on the critically imperiled species that live in the river was incorrect,” said Andrew Hawley of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The upper Columbia River steelhead that use the Similkameen River for example are known to be better leapers than Chinook, and according to NMFS’s own biologists, it is very likely that steelhead are indeed navigating the falls below the dam. This fact requires a new analysis of the dam’s impacts under the Endangered Species Act.”

“This new information only adds to the body of evidence showing that leaving Enloe Dam in place is a mistake,” said Trish Rolfe, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “As we continue to look for ways to rehabilitate our flagging salmon and steelhead populations, it makes little sense to ignore the impact this project will have on the ability of these fish to access the 200 or so miles of viable habitat upstream of the dam.”

OPUD has faced strong local opposition to its plan to re-energize Enloe Dam due to environmental concerns as well as economic issues. 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 continue to impact the culturally, ecologically and recreationally significant Similkameen Falls (also called Coyote Falls), which lies immediately downstream of the dam.

“The plight of Puget Sound orca starving for want of salmon combined with the fundamental lack of economic viability should lead to removing this century-old cement plug,” said John Osborn, physician and coordinator of Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future Project. “Fish jumping in vain at the base of Enloe Dam is yet another terrible reminder of federal agencies failing to make the correct diagnosis for salmon, steelhead, and other species in trouble.  Fortunately, the Governor’s Task Force on Orca is now looking at removing Enloe Dam – as has occurred for restoring the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula and other rivers in Washington state.”

“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. 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 damA 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 Western Environmental Law Center sent the notice on behalf of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Columbiana, and Sierra Club.

Video of Chinook jumping at the base of the dam can be viewed here. Letters from NMFS and USFWS supporting reinitiating consultation are available here and here.

Contacts:

  • Andrew Hawley, Western Environmental Law Center, 206-487-7250, hawley@westernlaw.org
  • Trish Rolfe, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, 206-829-8299, trolfe@celp.org
  • John Osborn, Sierra Club, 509-939-1290, john@waterplanet.ws

July Issue of Washington Water Watch

Click here to read the July issue of Washington Water Watch.

In this month’s issue of Water Watch, read an update on the Enloe case, a background of the Chehalis watershed and recommendations, articles on the H2KNOW Cammpaign, Ecology’s draft CAFO permit, and an introduction of our Summer 2016 Legal Intern. In addition, learn more about CELP’s special Summer Membership special!