Dam mess? Fluctuating water levels cause concern at Pend Oreille

Zach Hagadone//December 28, 2009

Dam mess? Fluctuating water levels cause concern at Pend Oreille

Zach Hagadone//December 28, 2009

It’s a boom and gloom cycle, making a living on Lake Pend Oreille.        During the warm summer months, Idaho’s largest lake is dotted with holiday boaters cutting v-shaped wakes across its 128-square-mile surface. The beaches are packed with campers and swimmers, the marinas are filled and the communities along the shore are buzzing with tourists.

But when autumn blows in, business slows. Boats are loaded and carted off, beaches deserted and main street crowds thin. Merchants count their summer earnings and hunker down for winter.

As the busy season recedes, the lake itself undergoes a big change, too. From June till late August, Pend Oreille is at its full pool of 2,062 feet above sea level. By late November, however, it will rest at 2,054 feet – the result of hydroelectric operations at the Albeni Falls Dam, located upstream on the Pend Oreille River, just east of the Idaho-Washington border.

For Rick Auletta, owner and operator of both Hope Marine Services and Beyond Hope Resort, these seasonal changes have been his business cycle for at least a decade. And they may change this year if the Bonneville Power Administration gets its way.

The Oregon-based federal agency, which markets power generated at dams throughout the region, wants to fluctuate the lake through the winter months – drawing it down to 2,051 feet, then raising it to 2,056 feet. BPA wants to see-saw within that range throughout the season, opening and closing Albeni Falls’ spillways in an effort to augment the region’s power supply.

Auletta is in favor of generating more hydro power, and also sees how he could benefit from periods of higher water in the winter. With 136 slips, Hope Marine Services is one of the biggest dock complexes on the lake. It services the majority of the large boats on Pend Oreille, and Auletta does a brisk trade during the summer. But when the lake level drops that becomes a challenge.

“If somebody has a big boat right now that sprung a leak, I wouldn’t be able to get it out – the ramp doesn’t go deep enough into the water,” he said. “If I knew I was going to have three or four more feet of water in a month, I could actually get some big boats in here. As a marina owner who does a lot of repair work on large boats it could actually be good for me.”

There are concerns with the plan, however, not least of which is a long-standing local worry over kokanee fish populations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the 42.6 megawatt Albeni Falls Dam, has traditionally timed the draw-down so it doesn’t conflict with the spawning season for kokanee, a variety of landlocked sockeye salmon indigenous to the lake. If the water is let out too soon, eggs laid by the fish in near-shore gravel are left high and dry.

But with studies suggesting the kokanee wouldn’t be impacted by potential fluctuations later in the season, BPA contends it’s the right time to start winter operations – especially since additional releases at Albeni Falls would increase generating capacity at dams downstream.

“We have a broad hydroelectric system made up of the different dams around the region and this is one of them,” BPA spokesman Michael Milstein said. “BPA pays for almost all the operation of the dam so we’d like to be able to have the option of using it if the conditions warrant it. The dam was added to provide this additional flexibility to generate hydropower.”

BPA isn’t planning any radical ups or downs – no more than six inches a day – and will work with groups including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to monitor impacts, Milstein said. But many critics, including the Pend Oreille Basin Commission, have fears that extend beyond kokanee populations.

The commission, which was set up by former-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to serve as an advisory group on the area’s waterways, points to a range of ecological risks posed by BPA’s plan, including: river delta erosion, disruption of waterfowl species, the spread of invasive plants and nutrient loading in near-shore waters.
According to Katie Wilson, the commission’s program director, BPA’s monitoring efforts are too little too late, and the agency simply isn’t taking into account the delicate systems that keep Pend Oreille in working order.

“Our feeling is that BPA operates a lot of their reservoirs like this. Well, Pend Oreille is a natural lake, and we feel like it probably deserves to be treated like a natural lake,” she said. “They’re saying ‘we’re going to be monitoring,’ but in my understanding of collecting base-line data, you do that the year before. It seems kind of backwards to start collecting data in the year you start making changes.”
Those changes may also present some unintended consequences for marina owners.

Because Auletta runs Hope Marine year-round, he has installed bubblers to keep his docks and pilings free of ice; but not every marina on the lake operates the same way. The fear is that when the water is drawn down, docks either settle onto the muddy near-shore and freeze in, or are encircled with ice. If the water is then raised, docks and pilings may be damaged as they fail to rise quickly enough. Likewise, if a big freeze hits when the water is high, property could be damaged when the water level falls abruptly.

“If they raised it and it did freeze hard, and then they dropped the lake, it would do damage, there’s no doubt about that. It would tear stuff up,” Auletta said. “I’ve been in the marina business for years, and winter conditions can play havoc with a marina.”

Milstein said BPA is aware of property owners’ concerns, and the agency plans to look into ways of mitigating the risk posed by icy conditions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which may decide on BPA’s fluctuation plan as soon as the end of December, also addressed the ice damage issue at a public meeting in Sandpoint earlier this month.

“Before we make any decision there were three things we wanted to make people understand: that we would not knowingly damage property, we would not knowingly damage the kokanee, and if damage is done we will stop the operation,” said Nola Leyde, a spokeswoman for the Corps. “The Corps is going to be available for people to report if they’re experiencing damage.”

Leyde went on to characterize the proposed winter operation as a “balancing act,” a term echoed by Milstein. Wilson, with the Pend Oreille Basin Commission, also agreed that striking a balance is central to effectively managing the lake, but she added that BPA’s plan just doesn’t pass muster.

“When the dam was created it was meant for multiple uses: recreation, fish and wildlife conservation, flood control, navigation and power generation. In that same enabling document (which established the dam), it says all of those uses have equal value,” she said. “To do this drastically different operation just for the sake of some additional power – that’s tough.”

Considering all the variables – including his own potential benefit – Auletta also thinks it’s a tough call.

“As far as the fish and all that, I’m not an expert. They’re finally being honest with us and saying it’s about energy, and that part I think is kind of cool. But to all of a sudden say, ‘I want to raise and lower the lake,’ it’s like, how can you do that when I can’t even drive a piling without a ton of paperwork?” he said.

“If you weigh out everything, it probably puts me on the side of not fluctuat
ing,” he added. “For the good of the many, it’s probably best not to do.”