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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.

Second Power Failure At Boise River Dam Prompts Concern From Biologists

Enel Green Power

On September 17, the flow in the Boise River dropped from 621 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 335 cfs. The drop occurred at Barber Dam, a hydroelectric plant east of town.

The dam is operated by Enel Green Power, an international hydropower company. The company leases the plant from Ada County. According to Enel operations director Conrad St. Pierre, an electrical failure on the Idaho Power circuit occurred the morning of September 17.

“And so as a result of the power outage," says St. Pierre, "our generating equipment was put into emergency stop automatically by plant controls, which resulted in an immediate stop of flow through our turbines.”

St. Pierre says the pool behind the dam allowed water to spill over, which meant the river continued to flow at a lower level even as the power was off. He says after his operators identified the problem, they contacted Idaho Power and waited for the company to make repairs. St. Pierre says these kind of events happen with plants that rely on the power grid, and Enel did everything it could. The power came back a few hours later, and the river’s flows returned to normal levels.

Credit USGS Idaho
USGS Idaho
The gauge at Glenwood Bridge is downriver from the Barber Dam. This graph shows the drop in the river that occurred after a power outage, when the river dropped from 621 cfs to 335 cfs.

This is not the first time this year for a sharp drop in flow because of a power issue at Barber Dam. Back in February, an electrical outage shut down the plant, causing the Boise River to run nearly dry for about eight hours. Enel installed a back-up alarm system after the event, and agreed to take part in a river restoration project.

But to Idaho Fish and Game biologist Joe Kozfkay, the change in river flow was concerning. Kozfkay notes the February event was more serious, but says both spell problems for fish and insect populations.

“There’s probably been some mortality due to both of these events," says Kozfkay. "So it’s definitely not an ideal way to operate or manage an important system like this. And so we hope to see improvement with their sort of operations.”

Kozfkay says he hopes to see Enel find a more permanent fix – like a backup generator – to solve the power problems at Barber Dam.

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.