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The morning of February 4, 2015, Boiseans woke up to a river with almost no water in it. After making some calls, KBSX reporter Frankie Barnhill learned the Barber Dam was to blame. An overnight power outage tripped the 100-year-old hydroplant offline, causing the river to back up behind it for hours. Barnhill contacted the company that leases the Barber Dam from Ada County, asking for an explanation of what happened – and what was being done to fix it. Enel Green Power is an international firm with energy holdings in a number of American cities.In enterprising follow-up reports, Barnhill interviewed Ada County officials, Idaho Fish and Game biologists and environmental advocates. The question of how much damage the river's dewatering could have inflicted on the fish and insect population was a big one, as well as how Enel may contribute to a river mitigation project. A public outcry for accountability prompted Ada County to host a special meeting in the spring, which Barnhill covered.The story continued over the summer as a newly created Ada County environmental advisory board began discussions about a river restoration project, to be paid for equally by both the county and Enel. Environmentalists and biologists were feeling assured by Enel's engagement in the oversight board.Then, in September, a second power outage shut down Barber Dam and dewatered the river substantially. Barnhill received a tip about the outage and interviewed an executive with Enel about this second incident, which put the company back in the spotlight. She brought to light gaps in the system, including the lack of a backup generator at the hydroplant.Barnhill continues to follow this story closely, holding Enel and Ada County officials accountable.Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the first story in the series.

A Power Outage May Have Caused The Boise River's Sharp Drop Overnight

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio
The Boise River bed was mostly dry Feb. 4 at 9:04 a.m. near the Parkcenter Bridge. A malfunctioning power plant was to blame for the low flow. The image on the right shows the same spot almost three hours later.

This story was updated at 4:55 p.m.

You might have noticed the Boise River was lower than normal Wednesday morning. At midnight, the gauge at Boise's Glenwood Bridge showed the river was flowing at 290 cubic feet per second (cfs). At 10:45 a.m., the river had dropped to just 81 cfs. 

Ryan Hedrick is a hydrologist at the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that controls the flow of water to the river at Lucky Peak. He says the significant drop this morning was due to a problem at a Boise hydroelectric plant in the middle of the night.

"It appears that [the powerhouse at] Barber Dam was shut down," says Hedrick. "And when that happens, water has to build behind the dam until it's full enough to spill over the top of the dam and water will then continue downstream."

Hedrick says the bureau monitors readings every 15 minutes, and this drop was significant. He says people often call to report when the river is down and the bureau was alerted to this morning's low flow.

"There was concern that the river was down, so then we have to do investigative work if it wasn't us [slowing the flow]."

Credit USGS Idaho
This chart shows the steep decline in the Boise River's flow Wednesday.

But by noon, the river was back up to a more normal flow in town. Hedrick says he's not sure exactly what happened at Barber Dam to cause the flow to drop so dramatically, but he's not too worried about it.

"I suspect it's happened before, it's just one of those anomalies," says Hedrick.

Barber Dam is owned by Enel Green Power, an international hydropower company.

The company's regional operations manager Larry James says they're is still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong at Barber Dam. But he suspects a slight fluctuation in the Idaho Power grid caused the hydroelectric plant to shut down, causing water to back up behind the dam.

James says the plant went down at 10 p.m. Tuesday, and the automatic alert system also failed. The company’s Boise staff got the plant running again around 6 a.m., but it took several more hours for flow to return to normal on the river.

James says his company is investigating their equipment, and will make any upgrades necessary. He says this is the first time the Barber Dam systems have failed for an extended number of hours.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio

Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.