Make the McKenzie Connection!

Is Carmen-Smith too expensive to maintain?

Questions about fish ladder and cost overruns add to concerns

EUGENE: Delays in protecting Chinook salmon and Bull Trout are drawing fire from the public and federal agencies who criticize the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s relicensing of the Carmen-Smith Hydroelectric Project. At issue are ways of allowing fish to pass around man-made structures to access approximately 8 miles of McKenzie River and tributary habitat long blocked by the project.

In an October letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the assistant regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote that delays in building fish passage options had “reached the point where NOAA Fisheries cannot continue to stand by the plans offered by the project licensee.”

The NOAA’s letter went on to claim that “EWEB has gone from a 2008 commitment to provide first-class volitional passage within seven years, to a ten-year delay (and counting) to provide trap-and-haul, for the alleged purposes of balancing project economics, even though the present cost of power is now very close to EWEB’s original 2008 estimate.”

Responding at a utility board meeting, the utility’s general manager Frank Lawson noted the utility “takes seriously our responsibilities and commitments under the license for the Carmen-Smith Hydroelectric Project We respectfully disagree with the characterizations in the letter that the National Marine Fisheries Service sent to our regulator, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”

EWEB officials claim they too have been frustrated by delays in creating a fish passage. Contributing factors they say, include potential dam safety issues related to sinkholes in the bed of the reservoir and the new mapping of the White Branch fault zone, as well as challenges linked to EWEB staffing and planning.

Aden Basset, testifying at the EWEB commissioner’s June meeting, criticized what he called a “near total failure to comply” with the terms of the utility’s license. The 25-year-old felt that “EWEB has spent most of my life skipping between solutions not to construct” which he says furthered the risk “that salmon will go extinct.”

Two other agencies (the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) have also been corresponding with FERC and have withdrawn their support for prior settlement agreements related to fish passage.

Bethany Cotton, Cascade Wildlands’ conservation director, told the board “I cannot recall a letter from an agency, let alone all agencies, so strongly worded and stark in their assessment of a partner’s failure to meet their obligations.”

“EWEB,” she felt, “is contributing to the extinction of two iconic Northwest species - Chinook salmon and Bull Trout.”

Complications related to the Carmen-Smith project date back to 2008 when EWEB’s 50-year-old operating license expired, followed by a mapping error associated with the upper McKenzie’s designation as a national Wild & Scenic River. By 2015 it was determined the costs to build an upstream fish ladder - along with a downstream floating fish screen at the Trailbridge Reservoir - didn’t pencil out.

Lisa Krentz, EWEB‘s generation manager, told the board that under agreements reached by 2021, the utility had agreed to build a trap and haul facility, make modifications to allow fish to pass downstream, and permanently shut down the Trailbridge powerhouse. She gave three reasons for a series of delays: “Dam safety, understaffing, and protection of natural resources.”

Commissioner Sonya Carlson, who represents EWEB’s Ward 6 and 7, said she was frustrated by decisions by agencies to withdraw from agreements. She felt they had been continually updated when issues around dam safety were discovered and “we brought it to their attention.”

Carlson said, “It’s both shocking to me and odd that at the same time, we would get these weird letters when we’ve been working with them throughout this entire process.”

She went on to say some agencies had turned “a blind eye in recent years to all the other things that have caused these delays.”

2016 cost estimates for updates to the project were targeted at $139 million. That number has since increased to $194 million due to inflation, supply chain issues, and safety-related modifications.

Board vice president John Barofsky said he was worried those costs could continue to climb if the agencies that said they were pulling out of the settlement “want us to change course.” Barofsky added, “if FERC mandates we either build a fish ladder or take out the dam, what would it take that $194 million to?”

Krentz said there were no estimates at this time for how much a fish ladder could total. However, design and construction costs for the current fisheries improvements had already increased $37 million more than the original $34 million estimate

A discussion on EWEB’s Integrated Resource Plan, which includes a 20-year electric forecast, is scheduled for the utility’s September meeting.


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