Stalled dam relicensing negotiations may soon get back on track with federal, state agencies, stakeholders
By Garret Jaros
The News Review
Negotiations are under way on whether to continue settlement talks to relicense the dams on the North Umpqua River.
But whether those discussions will take place, and who will be at the table, is far from certain.
Currently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that issues new licenses, is considering information and requests for more time.
“We are still trying to get settlement discussions reconvened with a policy level group, and the Forest Service plays a role in that,” said Terry Flores, hydro licensing director for PacifiCorp. “We want to move from front-line people to policy-making people.”
She has asked for a task force of federal and state natural resource agencies and other stakeholders.
PacifiCorp, parent company of Pacific Power, owns the eight dams and associated canals, flumes and forebays collectively called the North Umpqua Hydroelectric Project. The project, which is entirely within the 900,000 acre Umpqua National Forest, continues to operate under one-year extensions under the same terms as the original 50-year license.
Flores said PacifiCorp has been talking on the phone with Forest Service officials Harv Forsgren, the regional forest supervisor out of Portland, and Don Ostby, forest supervisor for the Umpqua National Forest.
“Harv Forsgren says he’s interested in getting back to the talks, so now we are talking with Don Ostby about getting back to the settlement table the stockholders back to the settlement table,” Flores said. “We are still in the early stages.”
The process to relicense the project stalled in November 1999 when PacifiCorp negotiators withdrew from discussions with a settlement group composed of 12 federal and state agencies and several nongovernmental groups such as fishing and conservation groups.
“We exited the settlement process because at that time, the Forest Service was insisting that to reach any agreement PacifiCorp would have to first agree to remove Soda Springs Dam,” Flores said.
Soda Springs Dam, located east of Roseburg between Dry Creek and Toketee, is the farthest downstream dam in the project. The primary function of the 126-foot dam is to smooth out the flow of water discharged by the upstream plants. It also produces 11 of the system’s 185 megawatts of electricity.
The hydro project was first licensed in 1947 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It expired in 1997. PacifiCorp started the relicensing process in 1991 and submitted its application to FERC in 1995.
The process involved meeting with state, federal and nongovernmental agencies to look at a variety of issues, which included the project’s impact on the environment and animal species. The application consists of more than 40 volumes of documents that stand more than 5 feet tall when stacked.
About the same time PacifiCorp applied for the license, the Northwest Forest Plan was being completed. The plan has extensive direction for the management of water on national forests in its Aquatic Conservation Strategy.
In working with the FERC process, the Forest Service must follow the standards set by the plan.
The dilemma, says Ostby, is the facility that’s in place would never be built under the Northwest Forest Plan.
One of the leading concerns of the plan is “connectivity,” a way for fish, amphibians and mammals to move freely, whether in the river or along its banks. Allowing the fine sediment needed for fish spawning to wash down river is another aspect of connectivity.
Forest Service officials have said that Fish Creek, which joins the North Umpqua above Soda Springs Dam, contains original and prime spawning grounds for migrating fish.
The section of river below the reservoir is also considered within the natural spawning area of those anadromous fish.
“Of all the alternatives we looked at dam removal was the only one that met our policy requirements,” Ostby said, “Dam removal clearly has the highest probability of returning the river to natural conditions. The other alternatives we were looking at needed much more evaluation.”
After PacifiCorp left the negotiations, it sent a letter to FERC in December requesting more time to add new information gained from a watershed analysis. That analysis was completed with the Forest Service after the original 1995 application.
“Their (FERC’s) official record didn’t have the watershed analysis information we’d put together,” Flores said.
In January, FERC denied the request and ordered PacifiCorp to send in any new proposals by Feb. 21. PacifiCorp complied by sending an outline that basically said, “with more information to follow” and again requested more time, Flores said.
“We are calling for a policy level group to meet on these issues,” she said.
But that could be the sticking point to any further settlement negotiations.
“We would welcome an opportunity to continue settlement discussions,” Ostby said. “I continue to believe the appropriate level to evaluate and conduct talks is at the forest level and not the policy level.”
“Policy develops overriding guidelines for all project relicensing and in this case it isn’t logical to develop policy for a single project. And the other thing I would say in terms of settlement is if we are going to re-enter discussions we’d like to have all of the original participants continue with the settlement discussions. That’s the bottom line for me.”
March 8, 2000