IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Two Upper Snake River irrigation companies have filed paperwork in pursuit of a license to build canal-based hydroelectric facilities that would operate year-round.

New Sweden Irrigation District and Idaho Irrigation District, both in Idaho Falls, filed pre-application documents and their notice of intent to apply for a license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on April 20. FERC officials intend to visit the site in June, when they’ve also requested that the applicants host a public scoping meeting.

Louis Thiel, chairman of the New Sweden board of directors, said the companies have been planning the project for nearly six years, seeking additional revenue to offset canal operating and maintenance costs. But work was delayed while their consultants studied the potential impacts of winter diversions on the Snake River fishery.

They’ve hired Britt Raybould as a project spokeswoman, who will develop a website offering updates and addressing public concerns and project benefits, such as a new conservation easement and improved public access to the Snake River. Raybould expects the project’s timeline will become clearer following the June scoping meeting.

Thiel said the canals run parallel to one another along opposite banks of the river. Up to 1,000 cubic feet per second would be diverted from each canal, run through a power turbine and piped back to the river about 3 miles downstream. Separate power houses would be built on each bank, just over 1,000 feet from where the water would return to the river.

Thiel said water would drop 17 feet in elevation before entering the turbines, which would generate up to 1 megawatt each. He estimated the total project cost at $4 million, which would be paid off through power sales after about a decade.

Studies commissioned by the irrigation companies have concluded reducing winter flows throughout the 3-mile stretch of river beginning 10 miles north of Idaho Falls wouldn’t adversely impact fish, and fish screens wouldn’t be necessary to keep trout out of the canals.

Trout Unlimited, which filed as an intervenor in the case, and the Idaho Dapartment of Fish and Game are skeptical of study findings relative to winter flows. IDFG Regional Fisheries Manager Dan Garren said most studies conclude low winter flows reduce water temperature and stress fish.

“I think we can do (the project), but it’s going to take some give and take on both sides,” Garren said. “The protection of the resource has to be taken into account.”

Thiel said winter diversions could be reduced, if need be.

Matt Woodard, with Trout Unlimited, believes the project could set a precedent leading to further development of Upper Snake canal-based turbines that run during winter.

The vast majority of canal-based turbines operate only during the irrigation season, said Alan Hansten, manager of Northside Canal Co. He said canal projects that produce at least 55 percent of their power during peak summer months receive higher payments.

Northside plans to activate a new, 1.28-megawatt, seasonal power turbine on its main canal within a couple of weeks. Hansten said that project was exempted from a FERC license because the turbine is far away from the river.

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