Questions permeate start of Eightmile review

February 4, 2021

Environmental review of a rebuilt Eightmile Lake dam is off to a stormy start.

As the first step in its environmental analysis of the dam, the state Department of Ecology invited comments on the scope of its proposed review. The responses suggest that this process will be controversial.

Ecology is proposing to advance or reimburse Icicle Peshastin Irrigation District for an undisclosed portion of the costs of rebuilding the Eightmile Lake dam, ostensibly because Ecology's Dam Safety Office has determined that the existing dam is unsafe and should be replaced. Emergency repairs were made in 2018, but Ecology regards them as temporary. In exchange for its funding, the irrigation district has agreed to transfer to Ecology whatever water rights it owns at Eightmile Lake in excess of 1,400 acre feet. Because of this transfer, Ecology plans to conduct some type of tentative determination on just how much water the irrigation district really owns at the lake. Most conservationists claim the irrigation district has relinquished anything over 1,700 acre feet through non-use – a point that is strongly disputed.

Ecology's scoping materials offer two dam designs – one with a narrow spillway, the other with a wide spillway. The narrow version would have gates, the wide one would not. Both dams would store the same amount of water and allow the irrigation district to draw down the same amount – 2,000 acre feet and more during a declared drought. In short, under both alternatives the lake level would be lower in the fall than it has ever been before.

Naturally, this brought multiple complaints about the lack of any alternative that would make the dam safe but keep the lake at historic levels. This was one of the main points raised in the many scoping comments filed by groups and individuals by the February 1 deadline.

More fundamentally, many comments questioned the review process itself. Why choose a dam design before knowing how much water the irrigation district has a right to store or withdraw? Shouldn't the emphasis be on reducing demand rather than more supply? Is this really about dam safety or finding an excuse to take more water?

From there, the questions probed the surrounding circumstances. How much is Ecology paying to rebuild the dam? Which division of Ecology will determine the irrigation district's water rights? Which division will receive the water that the irrigation district plans to transfer? What will be done with that water? How might that affect operation of the dam?

On the scope of the environmental review itself, the comments ranged from water quality, hydrography, and biological effects, to pumping, automating the outlet valve, and the cumulative impacts of this and other dams in the upper Icicle.

One point in Ecology's scoping materials set off a firestorm – a proposal for ground access to Eightmile Lake for construction equipment and material. This would require at least a temporary road more than three miles long through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Not only would that violate the Wilderness Act and Forest Service management plans, but to many it seemed to reveal a casual, almost indifferent attitude toward the wilderness.

Ecology was criticized for even making such a proposal, and comments proceeded from there to indict the Forest Service for its apparent hands-off policy. As one comment put it: "Forest Service involvement has been tardy, ambiguous and insufficient." To support that claim, the comment then listed the many tensions between the dam and road proposals on the one hand and the Alpine Lakes Area Land Management Plan on the other. 

It will take Ecology and the consultants it hired for this project a long time to sift through these comments and decide where they go from here. Previously, Ecology estimated its environmental review would take about a year. The Icicle Work Group has earmarked a million dollars to do it.