PSE completes repairs in White River

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By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

Puget Sound Energy repaired the White River diversion dam last week after the correct combination of political buttons was pushed.

PSE workers were able to get into the river and repair nine downed panels that were damaged due to storms and high water in December and January.

Authorization to repair the dam was in question until March 14 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recast an earlier letter approving the repairs.

The dam is owned by PSE and operated under the direction of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We were contacted by the Corps about repairs to the dam in January," said Steve Fransen, fish biologist for NOAA. "A March 4 meeting was the first time the Corp informed us the repairs must have approval from NOAA and (the state Department of) Fish and Wildlife."

Fish and Wildlife sent the project forward, but the NOAA letter approving the repairs ran into a snag.

At the March 10 meeting with PSE, the Corp, Fransen and members of the Save Lake Tapps Coalition butted heads on the letter's wording.

"They wanted certain language from us protecting them from being sued by watch dog groups concerning the Endangered Species Act," Fransen said.

A resolution was not reached until U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Bellevue, intervened.

"Congressman Reichert went through the (Bush) administration and we contacted the (U.S.) Department of Commerce," said Heather Janik, Reichert's press secretary. "The department encouraged NOAA to find a speedy resolution."

A new letter was written March 11 that satisfied PSE and the Corps concerns.

"We received approval late Monday morning (March 14) and we were able to start the project that afternoon," PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said. "We used a little different process this time to repair the dam. It didn't require the Corps to withhold water from Mud Mountain Dam. The flows were low enough that a track hoe was able to get into the river and make a channel to divert the water to one side, allowing workers to get into the river and fix the panels."

PSE constructed a dirt berm Monday to divert water to the north side of the river and by Wednesday evening workers had the frame sections in place.

"It went very well," PSE Superintendent Micah Goo said. "We started late Monday and finished Thursday morning on schedule."

Goo said it is not unusual for the panel to get knocked down during storms and high water.

Thompson said with the repairs completed, PSE is more confident Lake Tapps can be filled by Memorial Day, but low water flows in the river due to an abnormally dry winter continue to be a concern.

Thursday, the river was down to 360 cubic feet per second. A normal flow for this time of year, according to NOAA, would be 1,000 to 1,500 CFS.

"The river flow is quite low and has been for several weeks," Fransen said. "It's not likely to come up with rain fall. I haven't heard a good estimate of the water content up in the mountains, but there is more than enough to refill the lake. Timing is the question."

Flows in the river and to the lake are major issues between residents, NOAA and PSE.

The energy company owns the lake and is asking the Department of Ecology to issue drinking water rights to Tapps.

The rights were issued in June 2003, but remanded back to DOE by the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

The water rights decision is now in DOE hands and is intricately tied to the water flowing down the river.

"The flows we have recommended for the river leave an abundance of water to maintain the lake, but some will disagree with that," Fransen said. "If the fish did so well with low flows why did they become nearly extinct? Many people feel the lake needs a certain flow for water quality. We neither agree nor disagree, but I would suggest there are a lot of lowland lakes with less flow."

Fransen said the issue of flows through the lake are for the Department of Ecology to decide.

"NOAA's whole issue is fish in the White River," Fransen said.

According to NOAA, the river is home to chinook, coho and pink salmon, cutthroat and bull trout.

Dennis Box can be reached at

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