Dam Proposal on the Weiser River Trail Calls for Sacrifice 

The dam could wipe out the landscape but create more water security

From Paul Collins' small airplane, one can see where the Idaho Water Resource Board proposes to build a 283-foot earthen dam on the Weiser River. Everything beyond the mouth of the canyon would be flooded.

Jessica Murri

From Paul Collins' small airplane, one can see where the Idaho Water Resource Board proposes to build a 283-foot earthen dam on the Weiser River. Everything beyond the mouth of the canyon would be flooded.

The wind is calm, the propeller sputters and spins, and morning light streams through the little plane's sunroof. Paul Collins locks into his five-point harness and taxies out onto the short airstrip at the Weiser Airport.

"This plane has a short takeoff time," he tells me through our headsets, and he's not joking. By the end of his sentence, the bright yellow plane lifts into the air.

We're flying in a bright yellow Aviat Aircraft Husky A-1C, a tandem-built taildragger in immaculate condition. Collins sits in a bright red leather seat in front of me and pushes the side window open mid-flight so I could take some (windy) pictures.

As we fly over the Weiser River, he marvels at the 84-mile-long trail that winds alongside its banks from Weiser almost to New Meadows.

We circle over the canyon, atop green hills spotted with sagebrush, yellow wildflowers and rocky cliffs. The river is a bright blue thread running throughout.

Collins' attitude suddenly changes.

"It's so stupid," he says. "The whole idea of it. We're going to lose all this. I thought we won this fight 25 years ago, but I guess you can never know for sure."

Back in the mid-'90s, Collins was part of a group that turned the railroad bed along the Weiser River into a trail—the project became known as the Friends of the Weiser River Trail.

That trail is in jeopardy of being 250 feet under water due to a proposal from the Idaho Water Resource Board to build a 283-foot dam just a few miles upstream of Weiser.

The dam would hold 750,000 acre feet of water, almost as much as Lucky Peak, Arrowrock and the Anderson Ranch reservoirs put together.

If the proposal comes to pass, the colorful canyon would be inundated.

"The whole thing will be gone," Collins says. "And it'll just be a big sludge pit. They'll never be able to fill it. It's stupid. That's my attitude on it."

Welcome Aboard

Once the plane landed at the even smaller Midvale airport, a tour began for the inaugural Weiser River and Trail Appreciation Day, ferrying around 30 people in tour vans along the trail and riverbank.

The Friends of the Weiser River Trail hosted the May 2 tour to talk pros and cons of the dam with stakeholders and decision makers. It drew a diverse group with a spectrum of opinions on the proposal.

A handful of state senators and representatives including Sens. Bert Brackett (R-Rogerson) and Abby Lee (R-Fruitland) and Reps. Ryan Kerby (R-New Plymouth), Donna Pence (D-Gooding) and Phylis King (D-Boise), devoted their Saturday to the tour, as well as the chairman and two board members of the Idaho Water Resource Board.

The supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was there, as well as representatives from the Nez Perce Tribe and the Upper Snake River Tribes. A representative from Congressman Raul Labrador's office rode along beside members of several nonprofits, including the Weiser River Resource Council, the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Conservation League.

At the first stop, Idaho Water Resource Board Chairman Roger Chase addressed the crowd, explaining the necessity of the so-called Weiser-Galloway Project, which rests on three pillars: taking the strain off other important rivers and aquifers, satisfying water rights around the southern half of the state and augmenting runoff for salmon.

"We see this as one of the possible solutions for the future," Chase said.

Right now, 427,000 acre feet of water is released for salmon health—coming from the Snake, Boise and Payette rivers. If the dam is built, that water could come from the new reservoir instead. The Snake River Plain is especially in need some help, according to Chase. He said there is a 250,000 acre feet shortfall every year in the Snake River to meet water rights. Letting the Snake retain more of its water would help stabilize that shortfall and recharge the dwindling Snake River Aquifer.

Chase also explained how Idaho has given out more water rights than it has water, and that led to three days last year when the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River didn't reach minimum flow requirements agreed on between the state and Idaho Power, flows necessary for Idaho Power to generate electricity.

"We owe maybe 1,000 acre feet of water to Idaho Power now to make up for it," Chase told Boise Weekly. "We can do that occasionally but not all the time."

He listed other tactics the state has taken to keep from running dry in a time of drought, including efforts to recharge the Snake River Aquifer and cloud seeding to create more precipitation. Still, it hasn't been enough to meet everyone's needs.

Chase said the answer could likely be more water storage. The IWRB is looking at three projects in particular: building the Galloway dam, raising Arrowrock Dam or raising the Island Park Reservoir dam near Yellowstone National Park.

To flood this valley, the state would need to buy out 27 private property owners, but that's not many when looking to create a 13.5-mile-long reservoir.

"I used to be a river guide," Chase said. "My friends say, 'We never thought we would see you advocating for a dam.' But you have to make tough decisions in times of water scarcity. There will be many reasons not to build this dam and many reasons to build it. We may have to sacrifice this free-flowing river."

ICL Water Associate Marie Kellner is adamant the Weiser River not be "sacrificed," along with the wildlife habitat for sage grouse, deer and elk, quail, waterfowl and smallmouth bass.

"We're in the era of [2014 documentary film] DamNation, which is all about how many places are deciding they don't want dams—not just because we care about the health of the river and the fisheries and the recreation benefits and the peace of mind that comes from a free-flowing river," Kellner said, "but also utility companies that own dams are deciding it's too expensive to retrofit them and move them into the 21st century and they would rather just remove them. Who is building dams in the 21st century?"

Building Dams

click to enlarge The Weiser River Trail was created in 1997 and spans 84 miles along the river, reaching from Weiser to New Meadows. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • The Weiser River Trail was created in 1997 and spans 84 miles along the river, reaching from Weiser to New Meadows.

The idea of damming the Weiser River has been around for decades. Last fall, Kellner decided it was time to take action after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the state a permit to start feasibility studies for the dam.

"You don't apply for something like that unless you're prepared to spend the money to do all of those studies," she said, listing off studies for environmental and operational analysis, geological structure and dam designs.

Kellner's not convinced that the reservoir could remain full, as lakes around the southern half of the state struggle to hit normal levels. The Weiser drainage is at 80 percent of normal to date for a water year, but its snowpack is at zero, meaning there's no more snow runoff for the rest of the summer.

The hits are even more extreme in the Bruneau and Owyhee basins, where the Bruneau River is expected to flow at 19 percent of average.

Obtaining that FERC permit, though, starts a three- to five-year process that will, by the end, determine if the dam is a good fit.

About $2 million has already been spent on the dam proposal, according to Cynthia Bridge Clark, an engineer with the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the project manager for the Galloway Dam project. Bridge Clark said the Idaho Legislature appropriated another $2 million in the 2014 session.

To answer Kellner's question on who is building dams in the 21st Century, Bridge Clark said, "All the western states are currently looking at dam proposals."

The Weiser River dam would cost around $500 million. It would be an earthen dam, similar to Lucky Peak.

That raises concern among residents of Weiser, according to Don Anderson, of the Weiser River Council.

Standing on the trail near the river, trying to imagine a dam that would reach taller than the U.S. Bank Building in Boise, Anderson expressed concern over the construction. He said the canyon walls were made of basalt and volcanic tuff—not the sturdiest of anchors.

"I live about a mile-and-a-half away from where the dam face would be," Anderson said. "If something was to go wrong, I'll be one of the first to know about it."

He made the comparison between this proposed dam and the Teton Dam disaster of 1976, when an earthen dam built on the Teton River breached, killing 11 people and causing up to $2 billion in damages.

"Hey, that's a cheap shot," said Chase, interrupting Anderson.

There was a heated moment between the man representing the Weiser River Resource Council and the chairman of the Idaho Water Resource Board. Anderson apologized, but the tension lingered as the next speaker took over.

Overall, Kellner was happy with the turnout—and with the differing opinions.

"If we just brought people together who were opposed to the project, we're not really moving forward the dialogue; we're just rallying among our own," Kellner said. "Here, both parties can hear each other's concerns."

Should the dam be built, Bridge Clark said it would probably take up to 10 years before it is in place.

Kellner would rather see the money used on the dam to go toward helping water users practice more sustainable options. Collins—the pilot—would rather not see his favorite trail 250 feet under. Anderson would rather not live at the base of a dam.

However, as Chase said at the beginning of the day, sacrifices need to be made. Whether it will be the natural environment or a dam meant to improve water security remains to be seen.

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