The Box Canyon Dam is about to enter a new era – one that’s kinder to fish and more attentive to the Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ long history in northeast Washington.
Dignitaries from the tribe and the Pend Oreille Public Utilities District will meet at 10 a.m. today in Usk to sign an accord over the dam’s future operations. Drumming and songs from the Frog Island Singers will lend a festive note to the ceremony. George Skibine, acting director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is traveling from Washington, D.C., to attend.
The celebration marks the end of nearly a decade of litigation over the 57-year-old dam’s relicensing process. The accord was reached with the help of a federal mediator.
“I never thought we’d get here,” said Deane Osterman, executive director of the tribe’s natural resource department. “It’s been a long and controversial road.”
Nestled in the Selkirk Mountains, the dam harnesses the flow of the Pend Oreille River near Ione, Wash. It generates electricity for 8,500 utility district customers, providing some of the state’s most inexpensive energy.
But when the dam was built in the 1950s, it created a 55-mile reservoir that flooded one-tenth of the tiny Kalispel Reservation.
The ferocious rapids that halted explorer David Thompson’s quest to find a route from Lake Pend Oreille to the Columbia River were submerged. The rising water also swamped access to the tribe’s powwow grounds on Frog Island and flooded other cultural sites.
Traditional food sources were also affected, Osterman said. Built without fish ladders, the dam took a heavy toll on bull trout, which once fattened to 30 pounds in the Pend Oreille River system. Harvested in the fall, bull trout augmented salmon as a staple in the Kalispels’ diet.
“We have a long-term vision to restore these fisheries,” Osterman said.
As part of the accord, the utility will spend more than $50 million on fish ladders at the dam and at a pumping station at Calispell Creek, an important spawning stream. Over a 25-year period, the utility will also restore 164 miles of trout habitat in the river’s tributaries. The accord also calls for new recreational facilities on tribal land along the river.
The expenditures are among tens of millions of dollars that the utility will spend to meet the terms of the Box Canyon Dam’s new 50-year federal license.
“It’s sort of the new order of operating hydro facilities,” said Marc Cauchy, the utility’s director of regulatory and environmental affairs.
The Box Canyon Dam provides clean energy, but it has social and environmental costs that weren’t considered in the 1950s. Like other tribes with hydropower projects encroaching on their land, the Kalispels used the dam’s federal relicensing process to mitigate past damage.
In another recent example, Avista Corp. agreed to pay up to $168 million over the next 50 years to compensate the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for storing water for power generation on the tribe’s submerged land in Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The Pend Oreille PUD challenged the initial environmental and cultural mitigation measures in the Box Canyon Dam’s new federal license. The utility estimated that the work would cost as much as $250 million. Officials said electric rates would quadruple.
A federal mediator met with the utility, the tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs, other federal agencies, and Ponderay Newsprint, which is the utility’s largest customer.
The parties agreed on a compromise, creating the accord. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must still sign off on the agreement, a process that could take six months.
The fisheries mitigation will cause power bills to rise in the short term. “We’ve been upfront with people all along about that,” Cauchy said. But over the next 50 years, the utility expects to keep its ranking as a low-cost power provider, he said.
Ponderay Newsprint, which buys 90 percent of the Box Canyon Dam’s power, is satisfied with the accord, said Tom Garrett, the plant’s human resources manager.
“There’s a huge price associated with it, but it was reduced significantly,” he said.
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