Keeping Water Flowing Over The Scenic Twin Falls Waterfall
This is a joint blog by John Seebach and Kevin Lewis, the Conservation Director of Idaho Rivers United. Pictured left, the authors after a full afternoon in the U.S. Senate and a DC summer thunderstorm
Is a waterfall still a waterfall if there’s no water flowing over it anymore? We don’t think so. That’s why Idaho Rivers United and American Rivers helped put a stop to Idaho Power’s plans to eliminate aesthetic flows over Idaho’s 130-foot Twin Falls during certain times of year.
What are aesthetic flows and why did we fight for them? To understand that, you have to understand a little bit about local geography, hydropower dams, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
At 130 feet tall, Twin Falls is one of the three largest waterfalls on the Snake River. Before 1935, the entire flow of Snake River plummeted over Twin Falls, which consisted of a north and south falls divided by a large basalt bedrock outcropping. But when Idaho Power began operating the Twin Falls Project in 1935, all of the water that flowed over the south falls was diverted into a pipe which ran to their powerhouse. Despite the loss of one of Twin Falls’ twins, sightseers still arrived in droves to view the not-quite-as-dramatic falls.
In 1995, Idaho Power proposed to kill off the remaining twin when it added a second turbine to its hydropower project. This new turbine eliminated most of the flow from the north falls. Fortunately for the public, FERC – the federal agency which regulates hydropower dams – has an obligation to consider more than just electricity generation when it makes decisions about how power companies are allowed to operate those dams. So while it allowed Idaho Power to install the second turbine, FERC also required it to leave some water in the river and flowing over the falls so that people who came to visit the falls would see a majestic waterfall.
In making this decision, FERC understood that keeping water in the waterfalls during weekends, holidays, and throughout the summer tourist season would result in a little bit less power being generated, but that this was outweighed by the public’s opportunity to actually see a waterfall when they came to visit Twin Falls. In the wonky language of hydropower licensing, water left in the river for the sake of the scenery (and the local economy that gets a boost when people come to see the scenery) is known as an “aesthetic flow.”
In 2011, in a tactic that is common to hydropower generators who strive to wring every penny out of their dams and, Idaho Power quietly proposed to “modify” FERC’s aesthetic flow requirement. Its new proposal? To completely dry up the falls in the fall and winter and during spring and summer mornings and evenings. Why? If FERC had approved their proposal, Idaho Power, which reported a net income of $176.7 million in 2013, would have made an extra $200,000 every year.
That’s a good deal for the power company, but it stinks for the public. Idaho Rivers United and American Rivers have worked together to reform hydropower dams for years, and we know how to play the game. We quickly weighed in with FERC, arguing that Idaho Power’s proposal would eliminate the best opportunities for photography (serious landscape photographers like to shoot in the morning and evening, when the light makes their subjects look best), make it impossible for out-of-season tourists to see the falls, and would have the consequence of reducing the number of visitors spending money in the local area.
It took them three years to review Idaho Power’s request, but FERC listened to us and did the right thing last week when it ruled [PDF] that the private economic benefit that Idaho Power would enjoy by completely diverting the river at the Twin Falls Project does not outweigh the public’s lost opportunity to travel to the Snake River and actually see a beautiful waterfall at a place called Twin Falls. FERC deserves real credit for remembering that rivers provide many more public benefits than just generating electricity, and taking action to protect the public from a power company that wanted to keep all of those benefits flowing in one direction: to its bottom line.