Improvements near Weber River dam could benefit boaters, anglers and fish

Thursday , June 14, 2018 - 5:00 AM

As PacifiCorp looks to the future of its century-old Weber River hydroelectric project, fish and recreation could also get a boost. 

The utility owns and operates a dam at the mouth of Weber Canyon, along with diversion pipes, turbine and a substation, which first went online in 1910. Drivers on Interstate 84 have likely seen its brick pumphouse, painted with the “Utah Power and Light Co.” signage, from PacifiCorp’s predecessor.

These days, the hydro-project produces enough electricity to power about 1,800 homes a year. But all that power comes at a price — it takes a toll on the Weber River and all the fish and people using its waters. That’s why federal regulators require actions to mitigate some of those environmental impacts before licensing the setup.

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PacifiCorp’s current license is set to expire in 2020. Late last month, it submitted its final renewal paperwork to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which proposes several projects to improve the Weber River’s environmental and recreational values. Those plans include a fish ladder to help game and threatened fish species, a new year-round picnic site, improved river access trails and, potentially, early-summer releases for whitewater kayakers and boaters.

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“Generally one of the things we like to do, and FERC likes to see, is recreational opportunities enhanced where possible and at a reasonable cost,” said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, which is owned by PacifiCorp. “(This) was an application that I think everybody agreed, ‘This is good work. We can support this.’”

CONNECTING FISH HABITAT

The utility’s biggest — and most expensive — river improvement will be the construction of a fish ladder to help unique and rare fish species move upstream. 

“The lower Weber River, which goes from Ogden to about Morgan, it supports a unique population of Bonneville cutthroat trout,” said Paul Burnett, Utah Water and Habitat Program lead for Trout Unlimited. “They’re popular for anglers, they’re native, they’ve been here thousands of years and they supported the pioneers as they settled the area.”

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Since the time those pioneers began moving in, however, the river became fragmented with dams diverting water for irrigation and hydropower. The fish ladder installed on PacifiCorp’s diversion will be a big step in connecting parts of the river. 

That connectivity is especially important for the Bonneville cutthroat, which must migrate upstream to spawn in tributaries near Mountain Green. 

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“We did some research, found their migration was being blocked and habitat chopped into smaller pieces both in the tributaries and the main stem,” Burnett said. “The PacifiCorp diversion, it was blocking about a third of the population in this stretch of the river. There’s nowhere for them to spawn below the dam, all the habitat is above.”

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The fish ladder will cost PacifiCorp just under $2.9 million to construct and $5,000 each year to maintain. It won’t just benefit trout, either — it’s meant to benefit the lesser-known bluehead sucker, which the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has identified as a state-sensitive species.

“There’s only 500 of them from Echo Dam all the way to downtown,” said Chance Broderius, a native aquatics biologist. “That ladder should allow both these species to do a little better and hopefully thrive.”

GIVING BOATING A BOOST

PacifiCorp could also help whitewater boaters connect with more sections of the lower Weber River. They’ve proposed four separate water releases, on Saturdays before July 15, so kayakers can enjoy a technical stretch of the river that includes the “Scrambled Eggs” bend.

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Because PacifiCorp diverts a large portion of the river through a pipe from its diversion dam to its powerhouse — up to 365 cubic feet per second — boaters rarely get a chance to enjoy the stretch’s Class IV rapids. 

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“We live in the second-driest state in the union. Utah’s not known for its super quality boating ... but there are a lot of boaters in Utah,” said Dave Wolfgram, an Ogden kayaker. “July releases would actually be really good because nothing else is flowing then.”

PacifiCorp runs a similar, limited recreational whitewater release on the Black Canyon of the Bear River. Like the Black Canyon, Wolfgram said he expects releases on the lower Weber to lure boaters from all over the state.

“It’s definitely the hardest section of the river after she leaves the Uinta (Mountains),” he said. “It’s unrunnable during the summer for us unless PacifiCorp stops taking water.”

The proposal has its opponents. It would take cooperation from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns some of the land on the stretch, and forest officials have some concerns.

“To be honest with you, the stretch of whitewater they’re talking about is pretty treacherous,” Ogden District Ranger Sean Harwood said. “Those kayakers, they know what they’re doing. They play in that water all the time, but if you were to put an ingress and egress in the river, it would invite everyone there.”

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While the U.S. Forest Service promotes recreation, it makes safety a priority, too, Harwood said. 

“There’s still access, but it means boaters carry their boats,” he said. “They’re already using the stretch and we’re doing nothing to stop that, just like we don’t stop (rock) climbing. It’s an at-your-risk thing.”

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PacifiCorp has proposed a variety of other projects that promote recreation that Harwood supports, however. 

The utility has earmarked $84,000 for a year-round vault restroom and handicapped-accessible picnic area at the Weber Recreation Site, just upstream of PacifiCorp’s diversion dam, along with another $100,000 to improve road access to the site. PacifiCorp has also proposed to spend $72,000 to improve user-created trails that provide river access. 

“PacifiCorp is excellent to work with,” Harwood said. 

Most of the proposed improvements will be constructed at the same time, Eskelsen said. He expects the process to take between six and nine months. Work can’t begin, however, until FERC approves the relicensing application. 

“That might be one to two years away,” Eskelsen said. “There isn’t a hard timetable on FERC in terms of when they issue the license. It’s up to their process.”

The entire relicensing application, which includes a list of proposed improvements, is available on the PacifiCorp website. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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