When Public Utility Districts Forget Who They Serve

by: Posted on: August 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Democracy, local Native culture, a Public Utility District and a dam are all converging in Okanogan County. Below is a written questionnaire with Read the Dirt editor Simon Davis-Cohen and Jere and Rick Gillespie, citizens of Okanogan County.

By Jere and Rick Gillespie, Columbia Bioregional Education Project


Simon Davis-Cohen: Who is most impacted by how the Similkameen River is treated and used?

Jere and Rick Gillespie: Most affected by impacts to the Similkameen River are those who live along the river between Oroville, WA and Princeton, British Columbia. Another large affected group are those who use the Similkameen River for recreation: water sports, fishing, and camping – both locals and tourists, mining hobbyists, and hikers along the Similkameen River Trail, a portion of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. Oroville, WA is in the center of the PNT.

SDC: What decisions face the Similkameen River, how are the decision-making processes democratic, how are they undemocratic? How could they be made more democratically?

JRG: In Washington State, the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) wants to obtain a license to use its old dam on the Similkameen River to generate electrical power. Enloe Dam was built in 1920, and ceased operations in 1958. Now, more than 50 years later, the PUD wants to obtain a hydropower license, build new generating facilities, and use the flow of the Similkameen to generate power. The PUD is asking to use virtually all of the available flow during the lower flow months – July through the following May. They plan to divert the river’s flow into the powerhouse from above Eloe Dam. They want all but a very small trickle of water to remain in the reach of the river alongside the proposed powerhouse. Both the face of Enloe Dam, and the Similkameen Falls immediately downstream, will be virtually dry for much of the year.

The Okanogan Public Utility District is owned by the ratepayers of Okanogan County, and governed by a board of three elected commissioners. Theoretically, this should make the PUD answerable to its owner-customers. However, as it is in other parts of our modern economic system, the hired professional managers are more responsive to the Wall Street type of business, than the more cautious and frugal Main Street variety. These managers have been able to persuade the commissioners to go deeply into debt, and raise utility rates substantially. The local public is very angry, and directing this anger, did elect one new commissioner in 2012. One is not enough, however. Consequently, the PUD is declaring itself to be in favor of rebuilding Enloe Dam’s power facilities, even though the economics of the decision are negative for the foreseeable future. The ratepayers are facing the need to generate an expression of widespread community disapproval, and some are calling for removal of the top managers, and removal of the aging dam structure as well.

SDC: Can you provide us a brief introduction to the cultural history of the Similkameen River and its significance to Native peoples?

JRG: Three anthropological and archeological studies have been done concerning the Similkameen River, and the Similkameen Indians. The Similkameens are one of the bands of the Okanogan Nation. There is evidence of Native settlement at Palmer Lake in the Holocene era, about 11,000 years ago. Elders who have grown up along the Similkameen know about 50 place names and can describe them with their former uses. They can also point out where the young went on vision quests, where the root digging areas are, and locations of the campsites of the ancestors who traveled the Similkameen River corridor to Oroville to participate in the big communal salmon fishing site there.

SDC: What are your thoughts on the legal rights of ecosystems, such as the Similkameen River? What would it mean for the River’s rights to be honored?

JRG: Right now, a coalition of recreation and conservation groups have appealed a state issued permit for the hydropower project, and hearings on the appeal have just concluded in Olympia at the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

The permit is the Water Quality Permit, known as the 401. Its issuance and the guidance for its issuance and control is the Clean Water Act, as adopted by the State of Washington and the Legislature. So, federal and state law govern the use and conservation of our rivers. Law protects the River’s rights. This is very good. In Washington State we are fortunate to have had a major commitment by the Legislature and governors to protect the state’s legacy of rivers and lakes.

However, in spite of the law, the Similkameen River would not have been protected had a local group of citizens not been standing by and watch-dogging the process. The local group reached out to American Rivers, American Whitewater, the Sierra Club, North Cascades Conservation Council, and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. It took a very focused group effort over several years to participate in all the licensing processes, submit comments, consult economists, and eventually hire a team of attorneys and technical experts. Fundraising has also been a necessary part of the challenge to bring the relevant law to bear on the PUD’s self-serving proposal.

Because our ecosystems cannot speak for themselves, the citizens who dwell in the river basins and watersheds need to be committed to protecting these natural resources as if they are one’s own, which, indeed they are.


Update (written by Jere and Rick Gillespie): The sight and sound of falling water is hereby affirmed to be of value to the Commons. In a trial over a permit issued by the Department of Ecology to the Okanogan Public Utility District, The Pollution Control Hearings Board, which is Washington State’s water law appeals court, agreed with appellants, and found that scenic beauty and associated recreational uses of a stream are to be protected as beneficial uses under the state’s Clean Water Act. The court determined that the scenic value of a waterfall or other natural features should be accorded consideration, even when it is in a remote rural area. The court asked the Department of Ecology and the Okanogan Public Utility District to add conditions to the 401 Water Quality Permit that call for doing aesthetic flow studies during the first three years of operation of the powerhouse. They were instructed to more precisely determine a flow of water over Enloe Dam and Similkameen Falls that maintains some of the visual and sound qualities of the natural flow of the Similkameen River through these points. The decision applies to all rivers of Washington State. The appellants are also pleased with this decision because it recognizes the value of the new Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, which passes by Similkameen Falls, and is important to the future recreation economy of Okanogan County.


Photo: Rick Gillespie

One Response to “When Public Utility Districts Forget Who They Serve”

  • Hopefully common sense will stop this financially unsound project. PUD must represent the ratepayers not big money.RVD
    by: Ray & Judy Dispenzaon: Sunday 11th of August 2013

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