Spokane Journal of Business

Pend Oreille PUD seeks Box Canyon relicensing

District proposes to spend $17 million-plus to boost dam’s generating capacity

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Pend Oreille Public Utility District No. 1, which serves about 7,400 electricity customers in northeast Washington, has applied to federal authorities for a new operating license for Box Canyon Dam, a 60-megawatt hydroelectric facility located on the Pend Oreille River about three miles north of Ione.

As part of the process, the district is proposing to spend about $17.5 million over a four- to five-year period to upgrade the dams turbines and generating equipment and thereby boost the plants rated generating capacity to 88 megawatts.

The upgrades would allow the plant to generate an additional 31 million to 35 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year and also likely would raise the survival rates of fish that pass through the dam, due to turbine-design improvements, the district says in its application.

The district is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to grant it a 50-year term on a new operating license for the dam. It received its current FERC license for Box Canyon in 1952, three years before the hydroelectric project became fully operational. That license expires Jan. 31, 2002. The district filed the application for its new license in January. The federal application-review process typically takes several years to complete.

The process requires the district to obtain a water-quality certification from the Washington state Department of Ecology, certifying that the dam complies with applicable portions of the Federal Clean Water Act and the states Water Pollution Control Act. The district has applied to Ecology, seeking that certification, and that application now is being reviewed by the agencys Spokane office. A 30-day, public-comment-and-review period for the application ends April 20. It likely will be a couple of years, though, before Ecology issues a decision because it will wait for the federal government to complete a mandated environmental review of the hydroelectric project as part of the FERC licensing process. Ecologys water-quality certification findings later will be incorporated into the FERC application review.

The Box Canyon hydroelectric complex includes a 160-foot-long, 45-foot-high concrete dam; a nearby powerhouse containing four 15,000-kilowatt generators; a 217-foot-long, horseshoe-shaped diversion tunnel; a forebay channel thats about 1,200 feet long and 60 feet wide; and a 42-foot-long auxiliary spillway. The reservoir behind the dam to the south is nearly 56 miles long and encompasses nearly 9,000 acres.

Although the facility serves the aforementioned about 7,400 Pend Oreille County customers, its biggest customer by far is a large industrial user, Ponderay Newsprint Co., which consumes about 80 percent of the power produced at Box Canyon Dam.

The countys overall average power requirement is around 106 megawatts, and Box Canyon Dam produces an average of about 54 megawatts. The PUD buys the rest of the power it needs from Spokane-based Avista Corp.; Seattle City Light, which operates nearby Boundary Dam; and other regional suppliers.

Box Canyon Dam was the subject of some controversy in the early 1990s when the Kalispel Indian Tribe alleged in a lawsuit that the Pend Oreille Public Utility District was illegally flooding tribal lands located behind the dam. The tribe contended the PUD had trespassed on the reservation by raising the river level.

In July 1994, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, upheld a decision by the U.S. District Court here against the PUD. The U.S. District Court agreed that the PUD had trespassed, but said the tribe only could collect damages equal to the amount it would have received if it had leased out the land for grazing. That amounted to a total of about $46,000 plus interest for flooding nearly 200 acres of land for 30 years, the district court said.

However, the appellate court determined that the tribe should be compensated for the value of the lands use as part of the power project, which escalated the potential damages. The appellate court remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court to determine the amount of damages. The PUD sought unsuccessfully to have the matter reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A settlement of the case was reached in 1998, under which the district agreed to pay the tribe a lump sum of a couple of million dollars for past damages and an annual payment for ongoing use of Indian-owned land. As part of the settlement, the PUD also agreed to fund a number of projects along the river, such as improving some campgrounds, helping the tribe develop some recreational sites, and dealing with erosion concerns. A technical committee that includes representatives of the PUD, the tribe, and federal and state agencies now meets monthly to administer those projects.

Jack Snyder, of Bothell, Wash.-based Duke Engineering & Services, which is providing consulting services to the PUD on its license application and specializes in that type of work, says Box Canyon is one of a number of dams in the Pacific Northwest that are involved in relicensing efforts.

Avista Corp. announced last month that it had secured a new operating license for its Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams, on the Clark Fork River in North Idaho and Western Montana. They, too, were built in the 1950s, and together they can generate up to 790 megawatts of electricity. Avista agreed to spend $220 million during the 45-year life of the license to pay for studies and measures to help enhance fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities on the river.

Kim Crompton
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