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Baker County Commission Chairman Bill Harvey understands why people are frustrated about Brownlee Reservoir’s fluctuating levels and the effects on the economy and their ability to recreate on the 53-mile long lake that forms the county’s eastern border.
Harvey attended a meeting Wednesday evening in Richland, near the north shore of Brownlee’s Powder River arm, where he talked with officials from Idaho Power Company, which owns and operates Brownlee Dam, and a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which can mandate how much water is released from the dam during the spring for flood control.
Harvey said about two dozen area residents also turned out for the public meeting at the Richland Community Center.
He said complaints about Brownlee’s low levels — especially during the spring and summer — date back for decades.
“This has been going on for 30 years,” Harvey said. “The same issues, the same frustrations, the same level of nothing moving forward.”
The key factor in the longstanding dissatisfaction is the crucial role Brownlee plays in reducing the risk of flooding downstream on both the Snake and Columbia rivers, mainly during the spring.
Stephen Hall, water management program director with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District, said that because Brownlee Dam, which was finished in 1958, was partially funded by the federal government, the company must comply with flood control mandates issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Generally speaking, the deeper the winter snowpack in the Western Idaho mountains, the lower Brownlee will be drawn down during the spring to make room for snowmelt.
“Unfortunately for the local community there, when we have a major flood year we have to draft a lot of water out of the reservoir in advance of the spring snowmelt,” Hall said. “That has an adverse impact. Understandably, the local community is very concerned about that impact and the effect it has on their local economy.”
He said there is little the Army Corps of Engineers can do to mitigate that because they need Brownlee’s capacity to store up to 1 million acre-feet of water.
(One acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons.)
The only other flood control reservoir in the area is Dworshak, on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. It can hold 2 million acre-feet.
Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman, said one of the main reasons for Wednesday’s meeting is that the Boise company recognizes that its operations affect Baker County residents and business owners.
“They’re our customers too so we really apreciate the opportunity to kind of explain at least from Idaho Power’s perspective how the system operates and that we do try to mitigate for those impacts,” he said.
As an example, Bowlin cited the new boat ramp the company built last year on the Oregon shore of the reservoir south of Richland. The Moonshine Mine ramp is a “low-water” facility — it’s usable when Brownlee is as much as 57 feet below full. By comparison, Baker County’s ramps at Hewitt and Holcomb parks near Richland are out of the water when the reservoir is at least 36 feet below full.
Bowlin said Idaho Power also pays for much of the maintenance at Hewitt and Holcomb Parks.
Although Harvey said he was pleased that the meeting happened, it did little to alleviate residents’ frustrations.
“Everybody in the whole room was frustrated ... It’s like running into a concrete wall and just keep beating on it and beating on it,” Harvey said. “And it doesn’t seem to be moving.”
He said since the reservoir is the only one on the Snake River that is dedicated to flood control, eastern Baker County is unfairly impacted. Flood control for three states hinges on Brownlee Reservoir being able to absorb runoff from upstream “to protect the lower dams and Portland.”
“To hold that entire river system back — that’s pretty amazing,” Harvey said.
Harvey cited last spring when the reservoir was nearly drained because of huge anticipated runoff from a bigger than average snowpack in Idaho.
“It literally destroyed our recreational opportunities last year,” Harvey said. “There’s got to be some other mechanisms to help alleviate this major issue.”
Harvey said revenues at the county’s Hewitt and Holcomb Park were far below average because the reservoir was so low that the parks’ boat ramps weren’t usable. He said that has a ripple effect on the area’s tourism economy, which he said generates almost $2 million annually.
Frank Gariglio, Idaho Power’s water management senior engineer, said severe drawdowns, as in 2017, happen only about 10 percent of years.
Harvey said Wednesday’s meeting was a learning experience for him. He said he understands better how complex the situation is, and how difficult it might be to find even a partial solution.
A possible option is having other reservoirs on the Snake River take on part of Brownlee’s flood control burden.
Harvey said he’s hopeful that all parties involved could “open a dialogue” and eventually work together toward such a partial solution.
He said he will be working with Idaho Power in efforts to explore how to work with the operators of the other dams upriver, the Army Corps of Engineers as well as another federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, to possibly have them draw down their reservoirs for flood control.
“That way we wouldn’t have to drop ours so far down,” Harvey said. “We would able to at least access our river even at a very low level. We could still have recreational opportunities.”
Harvey praised Idaho Power and the Army Corps of Engineers for the difficult job they have in managing the river. He said they are at the limits of what they can do.
“We need to try and start working towards some other solutions other than complaining that they don’t manage it well,” he said. “Because I do believe they do manage it well.”
Gariglio said that although Idaho Power would not really have a role in working with other dam projects to shift some of the flood control responsibility to them, it would definitely work with Baker County in any way to help.
See more in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.