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Review sought on Lake Pend Oreille levels

Hagadone News Network | June 15, 2010 9:00 PM

SANDPOINT - The Pend Oreille Basin Commission is calling for a more in-depth environmental review on a plan to manipulate the winter level of Lake Pend Oreille to maximize power generation in the Columbia Basin.

The commission is also insisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration do a better job at keeping the public abreast of the lake level fluctuation proposal.

BPA hosted an open house on May 25 on its request for the corps to strategically raise and lower the lake within a 5-foot range, but neglected to notify any of the local media or a lengthy list of stakeholders in the community.

A feed on the social networking site Twitter and a space on the corps' Seattle District website - both of which were set up expressly for the lake level issue - contained no mention of the Sandpoint meeting, nor did BPA's website. The corps also compiled a list of phone numbers and e-mails of groups and individuals who asked to be advised of developments in BPA's proposal, but none were ever notified of the meeting.

"If this is any indication of the public process promised by the aforementioned federal agencies, it will do little to alleviate local concerns," basin commission Chairman Ford Elsaesser said in a June 1 letter to Gov. Butch Otter and the state's federal delegation.

Nola Leyde, a spokeswoman for the corps' Seattle District, expressed regret over the lack of notification.

"Lesson learned - for all of us. We want to always communicate. They (BPA) intend to communicate as much as possible to everybody because there's no need to have a meeting if nobody's going to come," Leyde said.

BPA floated the idea of fluctuating the winter lake level via Albeni Falls Dam last year. Although the proposal could keep regional energy rates lower, the plan encountered stiff opposition in Bonner County due to concerns over impacts to fish populations, erosion and damage to shoreline infrastructure such as docks and water intakes.

The proposal was tabled earlier this year so it could undergo further study. The corps is conducting an environmental assessment of BPA's proposal and a draft version of the document is expected sometime this summer, Leyde said.

But the Pend Oreille Basin Commission, which was formed by the Legislature to safeguard Idaho's water quality and quantity interests in the Pend Oreille and Priest basins, is urging an environmental impact statement, a more rigorous form of analysis of a proposal's impacts.

"What they're proposing to do is change the operation of the dam in the winter and the problem we have with that is that they haven't figured out what - or how - to mitigate for operational loss," said Kate Wilson, the commission's program coordinator.

Current mitigation for the dam, which was built in 1952, addresses lands submerged or otherwise impacted by the facility's construction, not impacts to fish populations and other resources, Wilson said.

"It probably isn't appropriate to change the operation of the dam without first knowing what the mitigation would even look like," she said.

The decision whether an environmental assessment will suffice or if a full-blown EIS is warranted is up to the corps.

"The environmental assessment could lead to an EIS. It doesn't necessarily mean it stops there," said Leyde.

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