Proposed hydro projects on Beartooth Front dead for now

2013-06-06T18:30:00Z 2014-07-16T06:11:19Z Proposed hydro projects on Beartooth Front dead for nowBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A Bozeman company that had proposed building two small hydroelectric projects on East and West Rosebud creeks has pulled the plug on the projects, at least for now.

Ben Singer, project engineer for Hydrodynamics Inc., acknowledged Wednesday that the company's preliminary permit, which gave it three years to determine the feasibility of the projects, expired on May 31.

Although Hydrodynamics is still interested in the projects, he said, "I think it would be years out" before the company would consider beginning the process over again.

The news was hailed by opponents, who waged a three-year campaign involving petitions, public meetings, letters to the editor and a social-media presence.

"Of course we're ecstatic," said Mary Ellen Mangus, a member of Friends of the East Rosebud.

With the immediate threat now gone, she said, Friends of the East Rosebud will focus on having the East Rosebud declared a wild and scenic river, a federal designation that would permanently bar hydroelectric projects on the waterway.

"We don't want to go through this dam issue again," Mangus said.

Singer dismissed the critics as a "really small group of vocal people" whose concerns were misplaced.

Despite alarmist predictions of what the projects would do to fisheries and the larger area, Singer said, "they're really weren't any substantive concerns out there."

He said the reason Hydrodynamics allowed the permits to expire was that the Montana Public Service Commission has made it almost impossible for small hydro projects to operate at a profit, and is aiming to make the situation even worse.

"The Public Service Commission is basically shutting off projects like this," Singer said. "They're just handing NorthWestern (Energy) their monopoly back."

PSC Chairman Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, has asked the commission to change its rules so any small, independent renewable-power project larger than 100 kilowatts cannot get a standard-rate contract to sell its power to NorthWestern Energy. The current rule sets the threshold at 10 megawatts, or 100 times larger than 100 kilowatts.

Developers of small projects say that lowering the threshold to 100 kilowatts essentially blocks any feasible project from getting a standard-rate contract, because a 100-kilowatt project is too small to be profitable. The PSC has set a June 24 hearing on the proposed rule change.

"If you don't have any projects now, you're not going to get any wind or hydro projects built in Montana," Singer said.

The three-year permit was issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Singer described the permit as basically a placeholder that would have put Hydrodynamics at the front of the line if it had decided to pursue a project on the streams.

Actually applying for a license would have triggered a much more complex process involving the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The original proposal called for 8-foot-high dams 100 feet long, one on the East Rosebud about 400 feet downstream of East Rosebud Lake and the other on the West Rosebud, 800 feet downstream of Emerald Lake.

Singer said the proposed projects were scaled back and would have entailed building large headgates, not actual dams, and would have generated a total of less than 4 megawatts, not the nearly 12 megawatts originally proposed.

"Homeowners on East Rosebud Lake could not see any sense in hydro-power generation from a creek that only has sufficient water during spring runoffs," Dayle Hayes, president of the East Rosebud Lake Association, said in a press release.

Two members of the Friends of the East Rosebud, Frank Annighofer and Leslie Ziegler, returned Thursday from Washington, D.C., where they went to speak with Montana's congressional delegation about winning wild-and-scenic status for the East Rosebud.

Annighofer said they met with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and with the chief of staff for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was not available.

"They were very open and friendly and listened to us," Annighofer said. "But it's too early to say what will come of it."

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