Battle lines drawn before Corps of Engineers study on water use is released

Monday, September 15, 2003
Clifford Scates, of Gravette, fishes below Beaver Dam. CCN / Kathryn Lucariello

Carroll Electric Cooperative customers could be paying more for their electric service if minimum flows are established for improving trout fishing on the White River.

Then again, electric cooperatives in the state could stand to benefit economically from a steady generation of power which could be sold elsewhere if not needed locally.

The issue pits electric cooperatives against fishing enthusiasts, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the middle.

The Little Rock District of the Army Corps of Engineers is still in the process of completing a study of the impact of reallocating 15 feet of storage in five White River lakes, including Beaver and Table Rock, to support constant water releases from the dams with water which otherwise wouldn't be released for flood control or hydroelectric generation.

The Corps' draft proposal is due to be released in October.

Fishermen maintain that the proposed minimum flows are needed to improve navigation of fishing boats over shoals on the river, and believe that the change might improve feeding conditions for trout.

The request for minimum flows comes from a broad range of outdoor enthusiasts, including Arkansas Game and Fish, fishing guides, private businesses and trade associations.

Ted Coombes is executive director of Southwestern Power Resources Association (SWPRA), which represents customers of the Southwest Power Administration (SWPA). He says that if the water ---- 1.5 feet of water in Beaver Lake and 2 feet in Table Rock Lake ---- is reallocated from the power pools, the loss of energy and capacity from the power plants will be so great that contracts to every wholesale power customer, such as Carroll Electric Cooperative, will have to be modified to take into account a reduction in the allowance of electric energy.

While Arkansas electric cooperatives received more than 488 million megawatt-hours of low-cost hydroelectricity from SWPA in 2002, that amount only comprises about 10 percent of the total electricity provided to the cooperatives, according to Carmie Henry of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. That 10 percent figure is also accurate for Carroll Electric's service.

Premature?

The entire controversy may be somewhat premature.

Coombes, author of an article appearing in the current issue of Rural Arkansas, a monthly magazine that goes to all members of Arkansas electric cooperatives, fired the first volley this past week.

SWPA markets the hydroelectricity from dams in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana and is the sole hydroelectric supplier to Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corporation (AECC), which in turns provides power to Carroll Electric.

According to Coombes, AECC received more than 488 million megawatt-hours of low-cost hydroelectricity from SWPA. Reallocation of water storage to support White River minimum flows would mean that SWPA's customers, including AECC, would have to replace the energy lost to the reallocation with more expensive thermally-generated power, Coombes said.

"Since the power customers are all consumer-owned, not-for-profit entities, these higher costs would have to be passed on through higher electricity bills to the 6 million people they serve," he said.

Darrell Bowman of Arkansas Game and Fish says that extra hydropower would be generated by a minimum flow requirement, and that power companies could still generate at peak demand times. Additionally, generators at the dams could be replaced with bigger units, and tied into the grid, providing a steady flow of a relatively small amount of energy.

The increase in water flow would be about 600 cubic feet per second, Bowman said. With leakage at about 200 cubic feet per second, that would bring the total flow to about 800 cubic feet per second.

Dam Usage

Dams on the White River were originally built for flood control, primarily, and power generation. In the 1990s, legislation added purposes of recreation and fish and wildlife.

That legislation reduced the red tape required for Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to install ramps, but gave no funding and little standing for the new purposes.

The reallocation of water in the lakes would, with the addition of turbines, generate hydroelectricity on a 24-hour-a-day basis. But, according to Ricky Bittle of AECC, the hydroelectricity is marketed at peak demand times and brings a higher rate of return.

That would seem to mean that the publicly-owned power companies would see little financial benefit to having the additional energy, and it might even mean a loss since the discharged water would not be available for generation at peak demand times.

Who Pays?

The issue for the power companies is whether Arkansas and Missouri, where trout streams are located, are willing to pay for the minimum flows, Coombes said.

Each user of water from the lake pools, including water for drinking, is assigned a percentage of a mortgage taken out on the time of project completion. Payments go to the Department of Treasury, in effect reimbursing the taxpayers.

Interest generally ranges between 3 and 4 percent, depending on the time of project completion, with the debt being retired in 50 years.

Currently, according to Coombes, SWPA is paying, for the capital investment and maintenance, 68 percent of Beaver Lake, 48 percent of Tablerock, 66 percent of Bull Shoals, 30 percent of Norfork, and 63 percent of Greer's Ferry.

Those figures, however, do not jive with those of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Little Rock. There, Mike Biggs, who heads up the congressionally-mandated minimum flow study, finds that the power companies' share is 56 percent for Beaver and 59 percent for Tablerock. A sixth lake in the White River system, Clearwater on Black River in southeast Missouri, does not generate electricity, he said.

While the initial debt of Norfork has been retired, reinvestment in replacement and rehabilitation has taken place, and SWPA continues to pay a portion of that, according to Coombes.

Allen Carter of Arkansas Game and Fish, said Tuesday that he was not aware of any incumbrances on power companies to satisfy a federal debt.

Study

The discrepancies will be cleared up as the study process and subsequent public comment takes place. Biggs acknowledges Coombes' figures may be right, but all parties involved need to be on the same page when it comes to the facts.

Carter said that the study is far from finished, and any speculation about the outcome and impact is premature. Information will be reviewed in Washington, D.C., and Dallas Texas, before it comes to Little Rock for the Corp of Engineers to study. The information will then be completed, taking into account concerns such as the economic and environmental impact, before it is made available for public comment.

The Nature Conservancy will play a part in the process, with an eye for environmental problems the proposed changes might effect, Biggs said.

After public comment, the final report will be submitted to congress for approval or disapproval. If it is approved, the federal government may not fund the minimum flow project due to budgetary restraints arising from national security concerns in light of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, costs of developing minimum flows could be left to private entities.

Unintended Success

The environment of the White River Valley was changed with the construction of dams, which started in the 1940s. Prior to that time, the White River was known for its bass fishing.

With cooler water from the lakes, trout were introduced in an effort to make up for the loss in warmer-water bass fishing.

That effort met with unintended success, according to P.J. Spraul, a Corps of Engineers spokesman in Little Rock. "We now have world-class trout fisheries on the White," he said. "Instead of just replacing fish, it became world class."

That success has resulted in significant economic impact as fishermen and tourists from throughout the world come to the White River, particularly down stream from Bull Shoals Dam, where five feet of the lake's level would have to be dedicated to minimum flow.

Leery

Unlike most commodities, electric power cannot be stored. AECC's Bittle is leery of the outcome. "We know from earlier Corps of Engineers studies that their method tends to value hydroelectric power the same, 24 hours a day." He said that the loss of power would impact how SWPA repays its portion of the debt for dam construction and maintenance.

"The fisheries won't pay that," he opined. "Why should 420,000 electric consumers, plus the other five states, pay for the fishermen's benefit? What is fair about that?"

While the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has no method in place where fishermen would pay, through a license or stamp, for the minimum flow to improve trout habitat, nothing was said to indicate Game and Fish would arbitrarily rule out such a proposal.

SWPRA's Coombes said "The true test of the value of minimum flows is whether the states of Arkansas and Missouri, where the effected trout streams are located, are willing to pay for them ---- including the 15 feet of storage in the five White River reservoirs.

"Power customers and municipal water supply customers have to pay for all storage they are allocated in Corps reservoirs," he continued. "If we expect the City of Mountain Home to pay for the storage it uses in Norfork Lake for its municipal water supply, shouldn't we expect the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to pay for the storage it uses to support minimum flow releases for the trout fisheries?"

Spraul said that Coombes' Rural Arkansas article is "very hypothetical. It is a worst-case scenario point of view."

Corps customers are not paying for water per se, but for a percentage of a lake's storage capacity.

Lake Layers

If one pictures lake levels behind a dam, the top layer is dedicated to flood control, paid for by taxpayers in general. That level is usually void of water.

The bottom level, at the river bed and slightly higher, is unmarketable storage.

The remainder between the flood control and unmarketable storage layers, comprises the conservation pool, which is the level most people think of when they envision how a lake looks. The conservation pool contains allocations for hydropower and water for consumer use.

To accommodate the suggested minimum flow, water could be reallocated from the flood control level or the hydropower allocation, or from a combination of the two.

Spraul noted that a letter from U.S. Representative John Boozman, contained in a read-ahead document for inter-governmental use, states that congress "never intended to pass costs of minimum flows on to power companies, so the SWPA's portion [of debt] would be reduced."

Meanwhile, said Bittle, the process is a balancing act, as electric power, recreation, environmental and fishing interests, each with a number of concerns, arrive at some sort of common ground.

"I wouldn't want to be in the Corps' position," he said.

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