SOUTH OF ROSCOE — First it was fire. Now it’s a hydro project.

Residents of the East Rosebud valley had no way to stop the Shepard Mountain fire that roared through the drainage and torched their cabins 16 years ago. But this time, many of the same residents see an opportunity to halt what they consider another threat in their backyards: a small hydropower facility.

As of late May, locals had gathered more than 900 signatures on a petition to stop the proposed development. On June 30, they have invited the public to join them in the East Rosebud for a day of activities and information.

Unlike the racing firestorm, progress on the hydropower proposal has been slow.

News of the project first broke in winter 2009, when Hydrodynamics, Inc., of Bozeman, filed for preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The company’s applications described two prospective hydropower projects for the Beartooth Front — one along East Rosebud Creek and the second, nearly a mirror project, along West Rosebud Creek. Each would involve a small diversion dam (eight feet high and 100 feet long) and a penstock running roughly two miles downstream to a small power house.

As described in the East Rosebud application, the dam would be approximately 400 feet downstream of East Rosebud Lake and the power plant would be situated in the vicinity of Jimmy Joe Campground.

According to the application, the East Rosebud project would generate six megawatts of electricity, roughly half the amount produced by PPL Montana’s Mystic Lake Dam.

In Hydrodynamics’ most recent update to FERC on May 23 of this year, engineer Ben Singer reports a few changes to original plans — including burying the penstock and possibly the power line on the East Rosebud side. And, rather than sending the power to Idaho, Hydrodynamics would most likely sell it in-state. Perhaps most notable to opponents of the project, however, is Singer’s statement that the company does not foresee filing a notice of intent or preliminary application within the next six months.

When Annette Lavalette and Frank Annighofer first learned of the proposal in the winter of 2009, it caught their attention. The couple live year-round on a hillside overlooking the East Rosebud valley.

“This didn’t seem like a good place for it — not here,” Annighofer said.

Both Lavalette and Annighofer said they favor renewable energy, but emphasize that not every project makes sense. Annighofer, who spent his career as a consultant for green energy, said opposing such a project is foreign to him.

“I was always on the other side,” he said.

But as the couple pursued more information on the East Rosebud proposal, their findings only confirmed their initial position.

“We first looked at the technicalities of the project,” Annighofer said. “Can it really generate as much power as they say?”

Using stream flow information from 1984, when a different company submitted a similar proposal, they determined the water level of East Rosebud Creek is only high enough to generate power for four months of the year. Based on that information, they question Hydrodynamics’ estimated six megawatt output.

“We came up with 1.5,” Annighofer said.

Hydrodynamics, Inc. has not responded to messages requesting information on this point and other concerns.

Lavalette points out that the 1984 proposal was dropped due to the low stream flow measurements.

The couple also questions the expense of mitigations — such as burying the penstock and making provisions to protect the fisheries — that are likely to be required.

“We want him (Roger Kirk, owner of Hydrodynamics) to realize what it will cost in the end," Annighofer said. “We don’t want him to go bankrupt and have no money to remedy what he started.”

Kevin Owens, a part-time resident of the Red Lodge area, has spent 35 years working in the utility industry in the Pacific Northwest. In a detailed letter he wrote to FERC, he draws attention to a variety of issues, including stream flow, fisheries and return on investment. He feels the Forest Service should list the project requirements now so Hydrodynamics can determine its financial feasibility.

“Only 4 percent of the existing dams in the United States incorporate hydroelectric generation into their structures,” he wrote. “Hydrodynamics, Inc. clearly needs to focus on the other 96 percent of the dams in the United States that may provide more realistic and less-damaging opportunities for electric generation.”

Different concerns resonate from different parties. Longtime resident Sybille Branger foresees a problem with uninvited invaders.

“Anytime you disrupt our ground, you get weeds,” she said.

Dayle Hayes, president of the East Rosebud Association, values the sense of place and the culture of the families that first built cabins there in the late 1800s.

“Some of these people’s families have been coming here for more than 100 years,” she said.

Like many of her neighbors, Hayes’ family lost its cabin to the Shepard Mountain fire of 1996. Around East Rosebud Lake, she notes, it’s taken this many years for the greenery to recover enough to shade the trail.

“We’ve just seen the devastation to an ecosystem,” she said. “The thought of having that compromised by unnecessary development is not something we in the association want to see.”

Scott Bosse, Montana’s representative of American Rivers, puts a high priority on designating the upper portion of East Rosebud Creek as a Wild and Scenic River.

“We are definitely concerned about impacts to the fisheries and wildlife, to stream habitat, to recreational uses and scenic values,” he said. “Less than one percent of rivers are even eligible for federal protection. To compromise on that last one percent, we are not willing to do.”

Without the designation — there have been no Montana rivers or streams designated as Wild and Scenic since 1976 — residents could be fighting similar battles in the years ahead, he cautioned.

The Stillwater Protective Association, the local resource council, also backs the petition effort. SPA President Charles Sangmeister echoes Lavalette’s and Annighofer’s sentiments that alternative energy is not appropriate in every situation.

“Not in an area that is a residential community and not in an area known for fishing and not in an area with Forest Service use and also where water flow is insufficient,” he said.

As opponents weigh in, the Forest Service prepares for activity that will trigger its involvement.

The agency will step in when Hydrodynamics plans any action that would disturb Forest Service ground, said Mariah Leuschen, acting public affairs specialist for the Custer and Gallatin National Forests. At that point, Hydrodynamics must come to the Forest Service for a special-use permit, which would trigger an environmental review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. It is at that point when the public would typically have a 60-day comment period.

To keep followers abreast of activity, a website at posts all related information. Of the 900-plus signatures, most were collected via that site. Roughly half come from residents of the region but the list also includes names from as far away as Japan, Australia and Pakistan.

Despite their opposition to the project, at least several petitioners have good things to say about Kirk, owner of Hydrodynamics. At one point, he invited doubters on a tour of a small hydropower project he developed in the 1970s on ranchland east of Red Lodge. The project taps into the end of an irrigation ditch and generates power when the ditch is running.

Sangmeister said they were impressed with Kirk’s expertise.

“We’d probably be supporting him in other areas,” he said. “We enjoyed talking with him and learning more about it and I think he understood our concerns. We hope we can work together to resolve this.”

While Hydrodynamics' proposals include both the East and West Rosebud drainages, the petition effort strictly targets the East Rosebud project.

“We had the feeling we should concentrate on one area,” Lavalette said. Annighofer adds that the projects are similar but the status of the two valleys is not. Because the West Rosebud is already harnessed by a dam and power generation facility, “the arguments we make here wouldn’t apply there,” he said.



Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.