Beaverhead hydropower project given new life

A Montana dam is one step closer to producing power after several delays and some political wrangling.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released yet another environmental assessment for a hydropower project on the Clark Canyon Dam on the Beaverhead River south of Dillon.

The Clark Canyon Dam was built more than 50 years ago to store irrigation water and control flooding but has never generated electricity.

Then, in 2009, Clark Canyon Hydro applied for a FERC permit to build a 4.7-megawatt hydropower generator on about 62 acres that could use the existing dam infrastructure. It would be a run-of-release generator, meaning it would provide power only when the Bureau of Reclamation was releasing water from Clark Canyon Reservoir. At full capacity, it could power up to 1,200 homes.

The new FERC assessment doesn’t deviate much from earlier versions except that it requires Clark Canyon Hydro to permanently monitor water quality for dissolved oxygen, other dissolved gases and temperature and notify the Montana Department of Environmental Quality if the measurements exceed set limits.

That’s because for the past two summers, both the Clark Canyon Reservoir and the Beaverhead River have suffered from very cloudy water and algae blooms, which result from warm water, excessive nitrogen and high sediment loads.  Spurred by too much nitrogen, algae blooms use up the oxygen in the water, and warm temperatures and silt cause hazardous conditions for fish and other aquatic life. Some anglers are concerned that a hydropower facility will worsen those conditions, especially if the Bureau of Reclamation is compelled to release more water to create power. DEQ just closed public comment on a water quality application for the project.

The assessment also requires that transmission line construction wouldn’t be allowed when sage grouse are breeding, and biologists would have to record and avoid nesting raptors.

As with many energy projects, transmission lines, or the lack of them, are the problem. No power lines extend to the dam, and Clark Canyon Hydro ran into problems securing a route to build new power lines.

The company was required to start construction by 2011 in order to keep the permit. Facing delays, Clark Canyon Hydro applied for a two-year extension. 2013 rolled by and still the company struggled to be connected to the grid. So FERC canceled the permit in March 2015.

That’s when Clark Canyon Hydro joined with Washington-based Toll House Energy to petition the Montana delegation for help.

Toll House Energy is in much the same boat, trying to produce 15-megawatts of hydropower with the Gibson Dam on the Sun River. Toll House Energy and the Great Falls Development Authority got their original FERC permit in 2008, but construction stalled when they couldn’t secure rights-of-way to build transmission lines.

Both companies fought requirements to install the lines underground.

In the Gibson Dam case, the transmission lines faced opposition from rich landowners – namely former talk-show host David Letterman - and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Gibson Dam sits 44 miles into the Lewis and Clark National Forest, home of endangered bull trout, lynx and grizzly bears. But in a 2012 environmental assessment, FERC concluded the lines would have no effect on wildlife.

Still, Toll House Energy’s permit expired in January, and it has yet to build its transmission lines. In February, Ann Miles, director of the FERC Office of Energy Projects, testified that the line was held up by the restrictions of a USFWS conservation easement.

In September, Montana’s congressional delegation introduced bills in the House and the Senate that would once again extend the permit deadlines for both projects. The bill passed the House earlier this year but is still making its way through the Senate.

Toll House’s permit had not expired so, under the bill, it would be renewed for six years, while Clark Canyon Hydro has to have its permit reinstated and then it would receive an extension for three years.

In the meantime, however, Clark Canyon Hydro could get what it wants without congressional interference. The company reapplied for the permit in November, which FERC accepted. As a result, FERC issued the updated environmental assessment as part of the application process.

The public has until July 29 to comment on the Clark Canyon assessment.