One year ago this morning, the Treasure Valley woke up to realize the Boise River stopped flowing overnight. We’ve learned a lot about this incident since. Here’s a recap and look to the future.

What Happened When the River Went Dry?

An alarm system at Barber Dam failed after a power outage, causing the river to be dewatered for almost 8 hours. We  won’t know the extent of damage to the fishery until this fall when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game conducts its next fish survey. Moreover, the time lag between the dewatering and the fall
2016 survey means that the effects of this incident will be hard to quantify.

The fishery impacts could have been studied sooner if Enel Green Power, the international power company responsible for the dewatering, had stepped up last fall to assist with a survey. Alas, the company declined an opportunity to do just that.

So What Was Done?

Ada County owns the dam and contracts Enel to run it. After months of advocacy by ICL and others, close to 100 people attended a public meeting Ada County held about the dewatering. Many registered dismay that Enel had yet to apologize for the dewatering and had not affirmed its intention to be a better river steward in the future. Many asked Enel to make a significant financial contribution to a river restoration project or fish survey. Conservation Voters for Idaho presented the county with a petition signed by hundreds of its residents asking for the same.

Following the meeting, Ada County created an Environmental Advisory Board (EAB). One EAB goal was to identify a Boise River restoration project that Ada County and Enel would equally sponsor, ideally with additional financial or in-kind support from EAB members and others. ICL enthusiastically joined the EAB, hopeful that the Boise River would get some well-deserved love from Enel. However, ICL’s excitement soon turned to disappointment and skepticism about Enel’s intentions.

After verbally committing at the first EAB meeting to contribute between $37,500 and $50,000, Enel changed its tune and dropped its contribution to $15,000. Ada County responded by asking Enel to match the county’s intended $30,000 contribution, but Enel balked.

After considerable deliberation, ICL stepped off the EAB. Despite the good intentions of the county and fellow EAB members, ICL recognizes the most effective role we can play is to push back against this bad actor in our midst. To be clear, Enel hopes to be in the Treasure Valley’s midst for a long time. Its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license to operate the dam expires in 2021, and Enel has stated its intention to renew the license.

Enel Says Drastic Fluctuations Are “Normal”

On Sept 17, a strange thing happened: the water gauge at the Glenwood Bridge registered a drop in flow of almost half. Such drastic fluctuations can lead to fish and insect kills that concern biologists, not to mention they pose a safety hazard to unsuspecting anglers and others when the flow then ramps back up.

After ensuring that Barber Dam operations were the cause of the drop, ICL reported the event to FERC. FERC demanded that Enel explain what happened and why it did not self-report the incident. Enel’s response? It didn’t believe this was “a reportable event, as it was a normal utility outage, which may occur several times each year.” It happened again on Dec 31. And by the company’s own words, it’s likely that this is how Enel has treated the river for the last 31 years.

A Year Later…

I wish I had a more positive report on this unfortunate anniversary. ICL strives to collaborate when we can, but we are an organization not afraid to push back when   necessary to protect Idaho’s resources. Enel gives us no choice but to hold it publicly accountable for the lack of respect it continually shows the Boise River and all the species that depend upon it.

The Boise River is beloved by hundreds of thousands of people. From the anglers fishing the river as I write, to those of us who get our drinking water from it, to the irrigators who use it all summer long, to those of you who biked or walked along its Greenbelt today-the Boise River truly is the lifeblood of the Treasure Valley.

The river can fill all the roles it plays because of thoughtful management and stewardship all along its course. ICL will continue to monitor Barber Dam operations and do what we can to make Enel an actual good steward of the Boise River moving forward.