Balance of power – NID’s future could hang on hydro license efforts |

Balance of power – NID’s future could hang on hydro license efforts

The future of the Nevada Irrigation District, western Nevada County’s water agency, could be radically altered by a seemingly innocuous regulatory exercise now under way.

Environmentalists and government groups could have a huge say about how water and cash flow into and through the vast hydropower system NID shares with PG&E. The reservoirs and dams being reviewed feed several local waterways, including the South Yuba River and Bear River.

The input will come over at least the next eight years as NID and PG&E go through the federal relicensing process for the power stations with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For decades, NID has used its power stations to produce hydroelectric energy, which is then sold to PG&E. The revenue is used by NID to support its water distribution in western Nevada County and surrounding areas.

NID expects to spend at least $10 million relicensing its four main power houses and dams in the Yuba-Bear Hydroelectric Project. PG&E did not have a cost estimate but expects great expense to relicense 12 dams and powerhouses that intertwine in the huge system with NID’s in the Yuba River and Bear River watersheds.

Environmental groups such as American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition see the relicensing process as a chance to reduce the impact of hydro energy on fish and wildlife habitats.

Both groups have targeted stream flows as key to their interests to protect wildlife, but it’s unknown how changed flows could affect NID’s hydroelectric power production and income.

According to NID figures, the hydropower plant electric sales in 2004 brought in $7 million, 23 percent of the district’s $30 million intake. That figure can vary from year to year, and much of it depends on the year’s water flow and how much NID has to give and take to other interests and to PG&E for its power generation.

Before he left NID last year after 35 years with the district, former Hydroelectric Manager Les Nicholson said the relicensing will probably have a major influence on the district’s future because:

• It could decide how much water is left within the district.

• The current deal where NID gets use of all the water on the system and PG&E gets all the power off its own facilities could change.

• The water currently being used in the system could increase in worth substantially.

Native American Indian tribes, a slew of government entities and outdoors groups could also have a say in what gets protected and what stream flows will eventually look like. An initial consultant who has done hydropower relicensings for the past 20 years calls the local project the most complex in California, because of NID’s Yuba Bear Hydroelectric Project dams and powerhouses being interconnected with PG&E’s.

Consultant James Lynch recently urged NID to work in conjunction with PG&E to smooth the process. “The lack of planning up front is where relicensings derail,” Lynch told an NID board committee. How the agency handles the process makes a huge difference in its outcome.

That was echoed by Steve Rothert of American Rivers. Rothert is an environmentalist who has spent five years with the group on dam and powerhouse licensings before a stint with the Hydropower Reform Coalition in the Midwest.

Rothert urged NID to collaborate with all the major groups who have an interest in the watershed.

“Those who have a belligerent attitude and don’t want to do the studies will end up in front of FERC (the energy regulatory commission) and, often, federal court,” Rothert told NID. “Reach a settlement with stakeholders. If FERC has to deal with a contentious agreement, no one will be happy in the end.”

Rothert said there is a current move on by the Department of the Interior to exclude all but the applicants from the review and appeals process of the relicensing. That would be catastrophic to a now very open procedure, Rothert said.

“If a licensee didn’t like the environmental input on the project, they could get a private meeting at Interior and get a resolution,” said Robbin Marks, director of the Hydropower Reform Coalition. “Others would be shut out.”

Marks said the proposal to exclude others from the review and appeals process is under fire, with eight states speaking out against it.

The power sources

In an average year, the four hydroelectric power plants owned by the Nevada Irrigation District generate 425 million kilowatt hours, enough to power more than 80,000 homes. In the wet year of 1995, the project produced 511 million kilowatt hours. But during the 1977 drought, only 47 million kilowatt hours were generated.

The four NID power plants are:

• Bowman Powerhouse below Bowman Lake.

• Chicago Park Powerhouse below the Chicago Park Forebay.

• Dutch Flat II Powerhouse below the Dutch Flat Forebay.

• Rollins Powerhouse below Rollins Reservoir.

Source: Nevada Irrigation District

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