Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Baker County Continues Working On Plan To Build A Hydroelectric Plant At Mason Dam

By Terri Harber


Oregon wildlife officials are considering whether to allow Baker County to add a hydroelectric project to Mason Dam without making it easier for fish to pass over the dam.

The project site, along the Powder River about 15 miles southwest of Baker City, contains habitat crucial for bull trout, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The county, by applying for new non-consumptive water rights for the hydro plan, triggered a state review of whether the project would require fish passage enhancement or protective fish screening at Mason Dam.

Instead of making any changes to Mason Dam, which has no fish ladders, county officials are proposing to replace a culvert on Silver Creek and improve fish passage conditions at another culvert on McCully Fork instead of work at Mason Dam itself.

Both streams are Powder River tributaries near Sumpter, above Mason Dam and Phillips Reservoir.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission can waive the fish passage requirements at the dam if the county's proposed culvert work would provide a net benefit to migratory fish.

The state's fish screening task force has recommended the Fish and Wildlife Commission approve the county's proposal to improve fish passage at Silver Creek and McCully Fork in lieu of work at Mason Dam.

The Commission will be asked to approve the waivers during its Jan. 10, 2014, meeting in Salem.

Members of the fish passage task force didn't make a decision about the county's request when they met last week, however.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Mason Dam, "wouldn't support the (hydro) project if the (fish) screen is needed because it would be too much of a burden,"said Jason Yencopal, community development director and the county staff member overseeing the Mason Dam project for the past few years.

Salmon and steelhead were already blocked from the upper Powder River when Mason Dam was built in 1968. Four downstream dams - Thief Valley on the Powder, and Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon on the Snake - prevent anadromous fish from continuing upriver.

The county has applied for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, for the hydro plant at Mason Dam.

Although the application would allow a plant of up to 3.4 megawatts, the one the county is proposing would produce about 1.2 megawatts, Yencopal said.

The energy would be sold to Idaho Power Company, which has a 138-kilovolt transmission line about a mile south of Mason Dam, he said.

It would be a conventional system with a water turbine, generator and other necessary items. The power would be transferred from the county system to the Idaho Power line by a 12.7-kilovolt connector that's nearly a mile long.

FERC asked the county to provide information about the potential need for fish protection, and the county will deliver it by Dec. 5.

If the Fish and Wildlife Commission approves of the mitigation plan, the next step would be to prepare a notice for an environmental assessment, a document that would examine the potential environmental effects of the hydro plant.

An OK from the state should help the county obtain its new water rights agreement from the Water Resources Department as well as the 401 Water Quality Application to the Department of Environmental Resources, Yencopal said.

The county submitted its draft license application and draft final biological assessment to FERC thispast spring.

The mitigation proposed by Baker County "would provide a net benefit to native migratory fish compared to providing passage at Mason Dam for bull trout, redband trout, northern pikeminnow, and largescale, mountain and bridgelip suckers," according to the initial determination made by the ODFW.

The public has until Dec. 9 to submit written comments about the county's proposal.

Send written comments or request additional information about the project from Elizabeth Moats, ODFW Hydropower Coordinator, 107 20th St., La Grande, OR 97850, or direct comments and questions by telephone to 541-962-1832 or address email to Elizabeth.A.OsierMoats@state.or.us

People interested also could comment during the January ODFW commission meeting.

Planning for this energy project has been going on for several years. The county should know by July 2014 whether the project is viable, Yencopal said.