Boise & Garden City

Ada County given maximum fine for disrupting Boise River at Barber Dam

Ada County has been slapped with a $50,000 fine for a problem at Barber Dam that cut off the entire flow of the Boise River temporarily on Aug. 2.

The county owns Barber Dam, which is near the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, as well as a hydropower plant incorporated into it. A power failure at 1 a.m. on Aug. 2 led to the river interruption and created potentially dangerous conditions on the river, the Idaho Department of Water Resources said Thursday in a news release.

When the power is out at Barber Dam, the river flows drop to zero, and water builds up on the upstream side stream of the dam until it flows over the dam’s top. That’s what the department said happened Aug. 2.

Cutting off the flow disrupted fish, recreation and maintenance flows on the river and deprived downstream irrigators of water, the department said. The Boise River watermaster, who oversees water distribution throughout the river basin, heard from multiple downstream canal operators during the early morning hours of Aug. 2 that there were reduced flows at their canal diversions.

A notice of violation issued by the department seeks a penalty of $50,000 and asks Ada County to fix “a recurring problem when power outages occur at the hydropower facility,” the news release said. A similar power outage and river disruption occurred in February 2015.

State law allows a fine of $50 per one-tenth cubic feet per second. The department estimated that 1,665 cubic feet per second was diverted by Barber Dam during the power outage. The penalty for that would be $832,500, but the statutory maximum civil penalty is $50,000.

The notice said the county must cease any further diversions of water at the dam and pay the penalty by Sept. 1.

Elizabeth Duncan, a spokeswoman for Ada County, said the the problems at the dam — which is operated by Enel Green Power, a renewable-energy company based in Rome — were resolved after 61 minutes.

“A piece of Idaho Power equipment on site of the dam had an issue, causing a trip and a subsequent power outage,” Duncan said in a phone interview.

The 2015 outage led Ada County to create an Environmental Advisory Board comprising members from Idaho Fish and Game, the Idaho Conservation League, the Barber Valley Neighborhood Association and several other stakeholders.

Dave Case, then an Ada County commissioner, told the group then that it was intended to “resolve what issues we can together” and help fund a project to benefit the river. In November 2016, the group announced a $45,000 project to improve fish habitat between Barber Park and the Eckert Bridge.

According to the Ada County website, the board has not had a scheduled meeting since June 2017. It has not met with quorum since September 2016. Duncan said she was not aware of plans to bring the board back.

The county will look further into what happened, Duncan said, and it will seek the compliance conference offered to it by Idaho Department of Water Resources.

“The root cause needs to be peeled apart very, very carefully,” Duncan said. “We never want things like this to happen. We’re going to be very deliberate and very thorough.”

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.