The Oneida Narrows Dam Controversy: an Explanation

The Oneida Narrows (Photo copyright Chadd VanZanten)Background and History

In December 2006, the Twin Lakes Canal Company (TLCC) filed a pre-application document with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) pursuant to constructing a dam on the Oneida Narrows section of the Bear River in southeastern Idaho. Controversy and contention have surrounded the matter ever since. On one side of the issue there are energy developers, who claim the project is needed to support area agriculture and other public interests. On the other side are campers, anglers, kayakers, and activists who say the dam would not benefit the public and would destroy a priceless natural resource.

The Oneida Narrows section of the Bear River is located near the town of Preston, Idaho. According to the pre-application document, the proposed TLCC dam would be 691 feet wide, 108 feet high, and would hold back more than 17,000 acre-feet of Bear River water for the purposes of irrigation and hydroelectric power. Just upstream from the Oneida Narrows there is a dam owned and operated by energy company PacifiCorp. There are two other PacifiCorp dams in the vicinity. However, the Oneida Narrows is an undeveloped and relatively wild place where recreationists of all kinds have gathered for decades. Area activities include camping, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, tubing, and birdwatching.

The Oneida Narrows (Photo copyright Chadd VanZanten)

In March 2007, TLCC continued its filing process by applying to the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) for the necessary water rights. In that same month, TLCC began the public scoping process by seeking out and collecting comments and other feedback from the public and interested agencies. It is estimated that TLCC has spent at least $2.5 million on the effort so far.

Controversy
Public interest in the issue has been intense. Numerous groups have banded together in opposition to the proposed dam construction, including the Bear Lake Watch, Bear River Watershed Council, Great Salt Lake Keeper, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Rivers United, and Trout Unlimited. One of the leading opposition groups is the Oneida Narrows Organization (ONO), which was created by private citizens specifically to protect the area from what they consider unnecessary and harmful development.

TLCC President Clair Bosen claims his company needs additional irrigation water for its agricultural customers. He says the hydroelectric power generated by the dam would pay for itself and water pumping operations. He claims it will also allow the water to be distributed in pipes, which is more efficient than using canals. In various comments to the media and in public comments made during the permit application process, Bosen has stated the project would benefit area agriculture, would be good for the local economy, and would not negatively impact other water rights holders. He has also stated that the impacts to the river and riparian habitat would be replaced with the stillwater recreation opportunities associated with a reservoir.

The Oneida Narrows (Photo copyright Chadd VanZanten)

The primary claim of the proposed project’s opponents is that the Oneida Narrows is a special place because it is one of the last publicly accessible, relatively unspoiled, and free-flowing sections of the Bear River. Much of the rest of the Bear River has been impacted by development and runs through private land. Opponents claim the reservoir would destroy large amounts of wild habitat and would negatively impact fish and animals. The Oneida Narrows is home to many species of wildlife, including native Bonneville cutthroat trout, moose, elk, deer, bats, and eagles.

Conservation group Trout Unlimited claims the TLCC project would threaten a multimillion dollar restoration project that benefits fluvial Bonneville cutthroat trout. PacifiCorp was initially in favor of the project but later withdrew their support because it would negatively affect the other PacifiCorp operations in the area.

Formal Hearing with Idaho Division of Water Rights
In November 2010 a pre-hearing conference was held, during which the parties requested a formal hearing with the IDWR so that TLCC’s water right permit application could be debated and discussed. After various application amendments, public notices, protests, and extensions, the formal public hearing was held in March 2012. Exhibits of evidence and public testimony for and against the permit application were entered at these hearings.

Preliminary Denial of the Permit Application
On July 26, 2012, the IDWR issued a preliminary order denying TLCC’s water right permit application. In the order, the IDWR concluded (among other things) that the TLCC’s permit application conflicts with local public interest. The preliminary order is signed by IDWR Water Resources Program Manager James Cefalo. Read the text of the order here.

The denial was categorized as preliminary because the permit process allows interested parties to appeal such decisions by filing exceptions. TLCC filed exceptions to the preliminary order on August 9, 2012, and interested parties filed responses to these exceptions later that month.

The Oneida Narrows (Photo copyright Chadd VanZanten)

Final Denial of the Permit Application and Aftermath
On 18 October 2012, IDWR Director Gary Spackman issued an order upholding the previous ruling. Read the entire text of the order here.

After the final order was released, TLCC President Clair Bosen said the company was examining options to move forward, and it has since been learned that TLCC will pursue federal permitting despite the lack of state permitting. Most agree that obtaining federal approval for the project will be difficult without the proper state permits, but no one says it’s impossible.

Trout Unlimited and other involved groups hailed the final order as a victory and have stated that the likelihood of a dam at the Oneida Narrows has now grown exceedingly small.

However, ONO says they are continuing their fight against the dam. ONO is teaming with the Bear River Watershed Council to go on the offensive. ONO head Star Coulbrooke says her organization plans to pursue protected river status for the Oneida Narrows when the TLCC dam proposal is withdrawn from or denied by FERC. This designation would help prevent similar or repeated proposals in the future.

Written by Chadd VanZanten with indispensable assistance from Star Coulbrooke. Full disclosure: although this article is intended to summarize only the facts of the matter, the author is opposed to the proposed dam. See an error? Please contact Chadd at chaddd(at)gmail.com. Thanks for reading.

Sources and further reading:

Bear River dam clears first hurdle
Bear River Narrows Hydroelectric Project, Twin Lakes Canal Company
River interests collide — Oneida dam issue coming to a head
Decision nears on proposed Oneida Narrows dam, but fight not over yet
Application for Oneida Dam denied by Idaho
Idaho denies company’s request to build dam on Oneida Narrows
Time to scrap plan for Oneida Narrows dam
Oneida Narrows victory: Team TU at work
Oneida Narrows Dam Proposal Suffers Major Setback
Idaho canal company appeals Bear River Dam ruling
IDWR denies water rights for dam
State kills dam plan: Oneida Narrows project ‘not in the public interest’
Oneida Narrows on Facebook
Oneida Narrows Organization on Facebook

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