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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.

After Barber Dam Accident In February, Boise River Restoration Project Sought

Boise River
Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio

About 100 people showed up at a meeting Wednesday night to hear what caused an east Boise dam to malfunction in February, and what steps are being taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Part of the Boise River was reduced to nearly a trickle for about eight hours overnight on February 4 when a power grid fluctuation caused the Barber Dam to shut down. Ada County owns the dam, but leases the hydroelectric plant to Enel Green Power.

Enel officials said a two-part alarm system failed to alert operators of the problem, causing water to back up behind the dam. When operators arrived in the morning, they discovered the problem and corrected it.

Larry James is the regional operations manager for Enel and says his company has never dealt with such a problem before. But James told the crowd on Wednesday night that his company has installed new alarm systems.

“But there is also a human factor involved now," James says, "where 24 hours a day every day of the year somebody is standing by a phone ready to answer it when that plant calls and says, ‘I am not running.’ And that is activated by a multitude of alarms.”

Normal winter flow on the Boise River is 240 cubic feet per second, which Idaho Fish and Game biologists say is necessary to support the fishery. Flows downstream of Barber Dam were as low as 81 cfs that morning, but an Idaho Fish and Game biologist said at the public meeting Wednesday night that the river then spiked to about 500 cfs once dam operators released flows the morning of February 4.

Some of those who testified at the meeting, which was called by Ada County commissioners, were members of environmental nonprofits. Marie Calloway Kellner is with the Idaho Conservation League, and has been following the issue for the last few months. She says she’s been happy with the way ENEL has responded to her group's requests for information, and that the company seems willing to make changes.

But Kellner and others told county commissioners they want to see the company step forward with a financial promise to fund a restoration project along the river. Larry James with ENEL says the company is looking into a possible collaborative project, but has not yet made a decision.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio

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