A group of cattle ranchers along the Bear River in Franklin and Caribou counties are under pressure from Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) to compromise private property rights to accommodate power generation.
It’s a complicated matter but a basic explanation is that RMP needs to increase flows through an area called Gentile Valley in order to meet reserve power production obligations under a concept called spinning reserve. However, when flows are increased to meet those obligations, farmland in Gentile Valley gets flooded. Although RMP says spinning reserve flows are rarely needed, the amount of water required to accommodate the plan is 2,600 cubic feet per second (CFS) – the capacity of the company’s Soda hydro plant. But the river breaches its banks at 1,500 CFS in the Gentile Valley, flooding parts of 26 cattle ranches over about 900 acres.
Spinning reserve is back up power for times when other forms of power production are down or decreased. The integration of wind and solar power, which are more variable and are becoming more important in RMP’s overall power production portfolio, creates time periods when spare generation is needed. In this case, RMP’s plans are to generate some of that back up electricity in their Soda hydro plant. Hydro plants at Oneida Reservoir and Cutler Reservoir in Utah, are currently used to fulfill spinning reserve regulations.
Landowners in the Gentile Valley think there is more to the story than RMP is disclosing. They say all 26 of the cattle ranches along the river in the two counties are likely to be put out of business because cattle ranching and most other agricultural pursuits on the land would no longer be allowed. Further, they say RMP is using spinning reserve as a tool to create a pool of excess water that could be stored in Bear Lake and then wheeled down river and sold to water users on the Wasatch Front.
Mark Mathews is a Gentile Valley cattle rancher, Caribou County commissioner and vice president of the Bear River Water Users Association (BRWUA). He said BRWUA put together a one-year lease agreement last spring that RMP rejected, saying it fell $11 million short of what they felt was reasonable – a good indication of how far apart the two sides are.
Mathews said negotiations and discussions are ongoing since November of 2016 and the threat of eminent domain is palpable.
“They have told me they are moving forward with the project,” Mathews said. “When I asked if eminent domain was an option they repeated that they are moving forward with the project. When I asked again, they just looked at me and didn’t answer.”
Mathews said over the last year he and other landowners along the river have been approached by appraisers, surveyors, received letters from RMP and attended meetings to learn more about the plan. RMP has discussed purchasing the land and then leasing it back to the cattle ranchers but those offers fell flat because the documents contained verbiage precluding livestock inside the easements.
“What they’re doing is trying to create a pool of water in Bear Lake to sell to the Wasatch Front,” Mathews said. “It’s all about money. But if we realize there is a demand for water going to the Wasatch Front this isn’t the way to do it. The power company can’t use eminent domain in Gentile Valley to create a reservoir in Bear Lake and then sell the water. It’s outside their scope as a public utility. They’re hiding behind the excuse of spinning reserve to try and secure flood easements in Gentile Valley.”
Another interesting point Mathews raises relates to flood control. If RMP were to gain flood easements in Gentile Valley, it would streamline the ability to wheel water downstream.
“It’s a mathematical equation,” he said. “In order to accommodate spring runoff the lake level has to be down to 5,918 feet (elevation) by April 1. “If you need to move 200,000 acre-feet for example, it takes a certain number of days to do that. Given the ability to release 2,600 CFS down through Gentile Valley it cuts the number of days they would need to accomplish that in half.”
In an email correspondence, RMP Spokesman David Eskelsen said the two most relevant concepts in the discussion are reserve power at the company’s Soda Hydro Plant and increased storage at Bear Lake.
The wet winter of 2017 replenished Bear Lake to levels not seen in several years, providing a power-production opportunity. In order to reach the Company’s maximum targeted flow in the Bear River, RMP ramped up efforts to acquire land in the Gentile Valley. The Soda Hydro Plant can handle up to 2,600 CFS, but is limited by flows through Gentile Valley.
“The expedited attempt to capture increased storage at Bear Lake didn’t work out this year but we are proceeding with acquiring land rights in Gentile Valley and are busy preparing offers,” Eskelsen wrote.
RMP rejected the offer from BRWUA because time was short with last spring’s heavy runoff already in progress and the power company needs a long-term arrangement. “Reserve power is an ongoing reliability requirement for customers. In order to provide reliable storage for water in Bear Lake, permanent land rights are needed,” he wrote.
The $11 million figure represents the cost to RMP to store additional water in Bear Lake. If the movement of the water is shifted from winter flood control releases to a future summer delivery, there is reduced generation of power for RMP customers. “The $11 million figure represents the cost (in the form of a lost opportunity) of holding this water and not generating with it during the winter as part of flood control preparations in advance of the coming Spring,” Eskelsen wrote.
Regarding eminent domain, Eskelsen responded that state law requires utilities to give notice that they have the right to use the tool to acquire land. However, they prefer to work with willing sellers.
With regard to potential downstream demand for Bear Lake water, Eskelsen wrote that RMP does not have legal authority to move water in the manner the allegation supposes. PacifiCorp’s perpetual obligations to deliver irrigation water are incorporated in decades of water law in the Bear River Compact. We are fully committed to honoring all our irrigation contracts,” he wrote.
“To use the Soda plant at its full capability for reserve power or generation emergencies and be able to maintain a higher elevation in Bear Lake during wet years, the flow capacity through Gentile Valley must be increased to 2,600 CFS. Spinning Reserve at the Soda plant and maintaining more storage in Bear Lake are separate projects that need the same flow capacity through Gentile Valley in order to be implemented.”