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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.

Ada County Owns Hydroelectric Plant Responsible For Dramatic Drop In Boise River

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waterarchives.org
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Flickr Creative Commons
Barber Dam was constructed on the Boise River in 1904-1906. The hydroelectric plant is owned by Ada County, which leases the dam to Enel Green Power.

It's still not clear what caused last week's malfunction at the Barber Dam in Boise. As we reported last week, the Boise River backed up behind the dam after an apparent power outage shut down the plant late Tuesday night. The river dropped well-below normal flows for almost eight hours before the dam's operators got it back up and running.

Enel Green Power is an international company, which leases the dam from Ada County. County spokesperson Jessica Donald says the company is still looking into exactly what happened last week to cause the dam to restrict the flow of water.

"What I can say is, those involved are still trying to figure out why it happened, but additional safety measures have been taken to keep it from happening again," says Donald.

Barber dam, water, boise river
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio
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Boise State Public Radio
This Instagram image shows what Barber Dam looks like today.

Donald says since last week's shutdown, Enel Green Power has installed a secondary alert system that's being monitored around the clock. Ada County has had a contract with the company since 1986, and the 35-year lease will be up in 2021. Idaho Power buys the energy generated at Barber Dam, which is used to power 3,500 homes. The county's ownership of the power plant dates back to the late 1970s and the dam itself was constructed in 1904.

Donald says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has also asked for an investigation into what happened at Barber Dam. FERC regulates and monitors power generation and dams.

Idaho Fish and Game says zero flows right below Barber Dam could have lasting effects on this year’s trout population. Last Friday, the Idaho Conservation League sent a letter to Ada County and Enel officials asking for them to consider sponsoring a river restoration project "as a show of their appreciation and understanding of how important the Boise River is to the species that call it home."

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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